Episode 100 - What Happens to Those Who Never Hear the Gospel?

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Before we get started today, I would just like to point out that this is our hundredth episode of the Unapologetic podcast. (Technically, it's the 101st. We started at episode zero but this is the hundredth “real” episode of the podcast.)

For those of you who have been along for this journey spanning two years now, thank you. For those of you who are new, thank you. Thanks for the feedback and the questions and the encouragement, I appreciate it and I hope this podcast continues to be an encouragement to you and a strengthener for your faith as we all endeavor to be faithful representatives of Christ in our culture wherever God has placed us.

Speaking of how we can faithfully represent Jesus and the gospel, let's talk today about what happens to those people in other countries perhaps or even in our own who have had no access to the gospel, who haven't heard the gospel and then die.

Well, we first have to acknowledge that this is a difficult question. For many of us, it's going to involve evaluating our feelings in light of Scripture and it's going to perhaps require some uncomfortable conclusions or at least thought processes to get there. A question I want to use to start out our time together thinking about this is, why do people go to hell?

Why do People Go to Hell?

How you answer that question will have a lot to do with how you understand what happens to people who have never heard the gospel. Now, when I ask people this question, sometimes I'll get an answer like, "Well, they reject Jesus," or they'll say, "They don't accept the gospel." Both of these answers have something in common. They presuppose that what makes you go to hell is a rejection of God's grace or somehow God has to extend this grace to you and it's only the rejection of that, that makes God just in sentencing you to hell.

What does the Bible say? There are many passages that speak to this but we're going to look at just a couple. Romans 3:23 says, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Romans 6:23 says, "For the wages of sin, (the payout of that sin) is death." That would be a spiritual death, and physical death als. These are multiple usages of the word death in Scripture.

We see that people are punished because of their sin. There are many passages in Scripture that make this very explicitly clear. People are punished justly by a pure, just and yet loving God because of their sin. If we were to answer the question, "Why do people go to hell?" It's not because of a rejection of the gospel. It's because of their sin. They're not found righteous before a holy and blameless God. He can't accept them into his presence in that way. Ultimately (just a jump to the end of the story right) that's why we need to be clothed in the alien righteousness of Jesus—a foreign righteousness that gets credited to us at salvation. That's why we need Jesus as righteousness, because ours doesn't cut it.

The issue isn't fundamentally a belief in God or a disbelief in God. It's a righteousness/unrighteousness issue. Now, it does so happen that the only way you get that righteousness is by belief in Christ but we're getting ahead of ourselves there. To return to why do people go to hell, it's not because of rejection of the gospel. It's because of their sin. Now, rejecting the gospel is a sin. Rejecting God is sin. However, fundamentally the issue is sin. Not knowledge or lack of knowledge of the gospel.

I want to look at Romans 1 here for a little bit to show that everyone does know that God exists and they also know that the things they do are wrong. Here's what he says in Romans 1, verse 18.

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness. Because what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen because they are understood through what has been made. So people are without excuse."

He continues,

“For although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God or give Him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened."

He goes on to give more examples of the depravity that has resulted in mankind but his point here is, everyone is without excuse when it comes to the knowledge of God's existence because God has made it clear to them in creation, in the natural world.

He actually says, "Everyone knows God." The issue is not a knowledge of God. It's the proper response to God. Everyone knows that there is a God. Now you might say, "Well, the atheist doesn't know that there's a God," but Paul is saying here, yes, he actually does. He maybe holding the knowledge down, he may be suppressing that knowledge but the Bible says, he does know there's a God.

This is one of those areas where we have to say, "Well, for my perspective or based on what someone tells me, it doesn't seem like they know there's a God." But scripture tells me, "Everyone knows there's a God. Everyone is without excuse." That's what I go with. Fundamentally here, it's not a knowledge issue. It's a heart issue. It's a denial of the revelation people have been given type of issue.

So that's Romans 1: Paul says, "Everyone's without excuse because they can know that there is a God from natural revelation, from God has revealed in the natural world."

In Romans 2 and 3. He's going to further his case that everyone is without excuse. Because even the Gentiles, though they didn't have the law, knew what was right and wrong. An attribute being created in the image of God is a moral knowledge. Let's piece this together: Everyone knows there's a God. God has made it clear from natural revelation and by being created in the image of God, man knows that what he does is wrong. That's enough for God to condemn people. They knew what was wrong and they did it and that you see is why we go to hell. Unless we are found to be in Christ.

What about people in other countries who haven't heard the gospel? Well, apart from the knowledge of Christ and placing their trust in Christ and repenting of their sin, they will go to hell. That is a sad truth but that's the case for any of us apart from God's grace being extended to us. This warrants a second question. What is grace?

What Is Grace?

Our first question to help us think through this was, why do people go to hell? Our second question is, what is grace? Because the way some people talk about salvation and God and grace it seems like God has to extend grace to people. He has to give everyone the same opportunity. But is that grace?

If grace is unmerited favor, then does God have to extend it to everyone in the same way? Does he have to extend the same opportunity to someone on the island who's never heard about Him as he does to someone in America or China or anywhere else? Well, no. Not if grace is unmerited, undeserved favor. There is no obligation on God to extend that.

Now, God does love everyone. That is certainly true but remember, the issue isn't, does God extend grace to someone? The issue is, did that person sin against Him? People are punished because of their sin. This issue of what is grace also factors into how we think about this. What we've seen in Romans 1 so far is that, people are punished because of their sin.

They know about God from natural revelation but it is special revelation that's required in order for people to come to a saving knowledge of Christ. This is what Paul talks about further on in Romans 10. He says starting in verse 9.

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you'll be saved. For what the heart one believes and thus has righteousness and with the mouth one confesses and thus has salvation." For the Scripture say, "Everyone who believes in Him will not be put to shame."

Now, I'm just going to pause here. Paul grounds salvation in a conscious knowledge and submission to Christ. You can't say someone is saved if they don't know who Jesus is. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but through Him. You can't say, "Well, yeah. They're saved because of Jesus but they didn't know about Jesus.“ That's what some people want to say.

The Bible doesn't leave that as an option. In fact, the whole idea of missions is predicated on the idea that people need to know about Jesus to be saved. Otherwise, if you're going to say, "Well, God deals with people who haven't heard about Jesus in a different way than people who have heard,” then, why should we tell people about Jesus?" We're basically sealing their fate if they don't submit to the gospel and submit to Christ. Because if you say, they're fine without the gospel; God's going to give them a special grace. Then, we should never tell anyone because if they reject it, they're worse off than they were before.

Now, I do think people are worse off for rejecting the gospel than if they didn’t, but that isn't to say that people weren't going to go to hell before they rejected the gospel. People are punished because of their sin. Now, yes, I think there is an extra punishment because it is sin to reject God in the knowledge of the full presentation of the gospel but it doesn't mean people were fine without it. I hope that is clear.

Continuing on in Romans 10, after we've seen that you must confess with your mouth and believe in your heart in Christ that requires conscious knowledge of Christ. Paul goes on to say that

There's no distinction between Jew and Greek for there's the same Lord of all and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

He asked this question,

“How are they to call him when they haven't believed in?"

It's a rhetorical question. They can't. That's the expected answer.

How are they to believe in one they haven't heard of?

Well, they can't.

How are they to hear without someone preaching to them?

They can't.

How are they to preach unless they are sent?

They can't.

As it is written, how timely is the arrival of those who proclaim the good news but not all have believed the good news. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed our report?"

Here's Paul's conclusion in this section.

“Consequently, faith comes through what is heard and what is heard comes to the preached Word of Christ."

If you want someone to become a Christian, preach the word of Christ to them, preach the gospel to them. There salvation in no other name, there is salvation in no other approach but through conscious knowledge of the gospel and placing one's faith in Christ and repenting of their sin. That's the same for the person in America, and in Haiti, and on islands I've never heard of and in countries where they've never heard the gospel.

That is why missions and evangelism are so important. Because apart from that submission to Christ and accepting the gospel, someone will not go to heaven. They will be justly punished, however, for their sin. Now, for some people, this still leaves them in an uncomfortable spot. "Well, how is that fair?" Someone would ask. Well, fairness is when you have to treat people the same way but grace is unmerited favor. There is no “have to” in grace but I want to give you an example that was very helpful for me when I was thinking through this a long time ago.

It's the example from a judicial system. I think this is helpful in many ways because the way Paul speaks many times of salvation and sin and justification and how we're declared not guilty and declared righteous in Christ picks up, kind of a legal, courtroom feel. He even says things like, "There is no condemnation in Christ; who can accuse us?” Well, these are all courtroom terms and metaphors. Let's talk about the courtroom metaphor here.

Let's say someone has killed another person in cold blood. It is first-degree murder. The jury finds him guilty. They don't deliberate for more than five minutes. It's a slam dunk. He did it, he's not sorry, he would do it again. Now, before the judge can justly sentenced this person to death, to capital punishment, does he first have to offer him a pardon? Now, a pardon is where we say, "You can go free. You can not experience the punishment and the price for your crime."

Does a judge have to offer everyone a pardon before punishing them or sentencing them to punishment? Well, I think the very obvious answer is no. Justice is getting what one deserves for the crimes they committed and it is not required by a just judge—and God is a just judge—to offer someone a pardon before you can justly punish them for their crimes.

It's the same way when it comes to us and our crimes against the sovereign God of the universe. He doesn't have to offer us grace, He doesn't have to offer someone the same opportunity in order to justly punish them for their sin. This frequently makes people uncomfortable. Because I think implicitly, even if we never say it, we feel like God owes us something. Or if he give something the one person, He has to give it to other people. Biblically, this is not the case. God singled out Israel and treated them differently. God singled out Abraham and Moses and treated them differently. He singled out David and treated him differently.

God deals with different people in different ways but He always gives people at least what they deserve or better. He never gives us worse than we deserve. In fact, the very act of sending His Son to the cross, to die for our sin, so that everyone who places their trust in Him will be saved is something no one deserved.

God's extension of grace is one side of looking at this equation. Ours is the other. If we want people in other countries who have never heard the gospel, we need to go and tell them. Because everyone, whether they're in another country or our neighbor next to us, or the person who lives next to a church, everyone will be justly punished for their sin, unless they are found in Christ. That is the heavy weight we all have. As Paul says in Romans 10, "How are people going to hear unless you tell them? How are they going to hear unless Christ has preached them?"

Well, they're not, and so, we need to do that. Let us not be mistaken about God's justice or His love or His grace. We need to think through these things in biblical categories, in biblical ways, so we accurately represent Him as He's represented Himself to us in Scripture.


I have one last thing to tell you before this episode is done. The youth pastor at my church, Hunter Leavine and I have been working on a book for parents. It's called, Gender: A Conversation Guide. It's part of a series we're writing called, Building Foundations. We want to equip parents to build gospel, biblically-centered foundations with their children from the ages of pre-K, elementary school, and middle/high school.

The first guide we’ve written out should be out within a month or two and it's on gender. What does it look like to teach your children in age-appropriate ways what the Bible has to say about gender. There's a lot of confusion in our culture and we don't need to be louder, we need to be clearer and the stakes are high. The concern for most people is not that your child will take on a different gender identity. It’s that this might be the issue that drives a wedge between them and Scripture due to how much weight society places on it.

We've written this book in an effort to help equip parents. Each chapter has age tips and discussion starters to aid you in having good, gospel centered conversations with your children. Be on the lookout for that in the next month or so.