The church is involved in both local and global missions. This is good because we are commanded by Christ to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” (Matt. 28:18) As we engage the world in this Great Commission, we are bound to recognize that many people we meet have never heard the gospel or even the name of Jesus. Such encounters, or even the contemplation of such people, have led many to the question: What is the destiny of the unevangelized?
I would like to consider this question in this article. We must trust God to provide the answer in His Word. This means leaving our emotions and preferences at the door of Biblical exegesis, walking down the aisle of humility, and kneeling in faith at the altar of God’s consistent, unfailing character.
WHAT ABOUT THE UNEVANGELIZED?
The State of All Mankind
Those who never hear the gospel are people. They are not a separate, alien race, with different natures than those who come in contact with the good news of Christ. This is important, because we must recognize that the Biblical theology of mankind is applicable and very relevant for both the evangelized and the unevangelized. This being the case, let us first consider what Scripture says about the nature of men. Open your Bible to Romans 3:9-12.
Paul has shown, in the opening passages of Romans, that both Gentiles and Jews are guilty before God because of their sin. He restates his conclusion in v.9: “We have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin.” To be under sin is to be ruled by it – under its authority. All men are shut up in disobedience (11:32), hostile toward God and even unable to please God (8:7-8). As if Paul’s authority as an apostle, writing Scripture, was not enough, he references several Old Testament passages to bear further witness to the condition of mankind under sin. Read through v.10-12 carefully.
Paul says several things about man, but the primary concern is that mankind is guilty before God and wicked in his heart. First, see the guiltiness: “There is none righteous, not even one…all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one,” (v.10, 12). All people have sinned against God, thereby becoming guilty in the courtroom of heaven. Whether by the Mosaic Law, or by the Law of Consciousness written on our hearts, we have all disobeyed God’s commands. In the deep caverns of our disobedience, we find a dissatisfaction with God – a supreme offense to the One Who is Himself the supreme satisfaction. Our sin is fundamentally the exchange of the truth of God for a lie in order to worship and serve creation rather than our Creator (1:25). It is our attempt to dismount God from His majestic position as the supreme end of all things (11:36; Col. 1:16-17). Idolatry is one of the most fundamental building blocks of sin.
Mankind is clearly guilty of rebellion against God. We have all committed treason against the King, and we justly deserve a punishment befitting our crime. Being that God is perfectly and eternally holy in all of His attributes, our sin demands a sentence that is equally perfect and eternal. Our punishment for seeking to defame, decry, dethrone, and reject the supremely good ruler should be equally supreme. Therefore, God’s punishment upon the wicked is perfect (it is complete, final, without flaw, and whole in its entirety), eternal (it is everlasting, infinite, and without end), and supreme (it is an exact manifestation of His holiness in majesty, wrath and omnipotence). All men are guilty, and thus all men are justly sentenced to such an end.
Second, see the wickedness: “There is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless,” (Rom. 3:11-12). In examining man’s guiltiness, we saw his legal status before God. In examining man’s wickedness, we see the state of his heart. Guiltiness is on paper, wickedness is in the heart/nature. Examine Paul’s statements for yourself. What picture does he paint of mankind? A spiritually depraved mind, a wayward heart, an nature un-desirous of God, and a spiritually useless existence. The issue here is that man’s affections are set against God. He does not desire God, for he does not even seek Him. Not only does he refrain from seeking Him, but he goes in the opposite direction in turning aside. The depravity of his nature is such that he is in his entirety spiritually useless. He is not only guilty of crimes against God, but He is wicked in His ungodly affections. From birth, men are set against God (Gen. 6:5; Ps. 51:5). Regardless of ethnicity, geographical location, material possessions, or knowledge of the gospel, this is the state of every human being.
The Destiny of the Unevangelized
The unevangelized are born in the same state that the evangelized are born in. To make matters more clear, recognize that we are all born unevangelized. Since every unevangelized person is in this state, the issue then becomes whether or not their lack of knowledge of the gospel excludes them from the eternal wrath of God. Do they slide-by because they never heard the good news of Christ? Is insufficient knowledge of the gospel an adequate excuse for avoiding the punishment for sin? Lets consider another text: Romans 10:13-15.
Paul asserts in verse 13 that salvation is available for anyone who will call on the name of the Lord. With this in mind, he then begins a series of rhetorical questions. 1) (v.14) “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed?” How will men call on God if they do not believe in Him? Believe must precede faith. 2) “How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard?” How will men believe in God if they have never heard of Him? Knowledge must precede belief. 3) “And how will they hear without a preacher?” How will men hear about God unless someone tells them? Evangelism precedes knowledge. 4) (v.15) “How will they preach unless they are sent?” How will preachers share the gospel unless someone first raises up an sends these preachers out to share? Commission precedes evangelism.
Here is the progression that Paul rhetorically gives us: men are commissioned by God to preach the gospel to men. Upon hearing the gospel, these men now have the knowledge necessary to believe in God, and thus to call on Him for salvation. Commission – Evangelism – Knowledge – Belief – Faith. It is important to note that Paul is using the word “belief” here to mean something other than faith in Christ and conviction of God’s existence. Instead, it is a belief that God is who He claims to be and does what He claims to do in His gospel. It is a belief in God’s revelation of Himself and His work in the good news of Jesus Christ.
Please notice the point Paul is seeking to make in this passage. By asking these rhetorical questions, Paul gives us a sequence that must be completed in its entirety for v.13 to be true. In order for someone to be saved, they must have faith. In order to have faith, they must believe in God (as explained above). In order to believe in God, they must have knowledge. In order to have knowledge, they must be evangelized. In order for them to be evangelized, the evangelist must be commissioned. If any of these facets are taken out of this sequence, then the whole thing breaks down. Especially relevant to this article is the notion that the evangelism step can be removed. According to Paul, if someone is not evangelized, then they will not receive knowledge of the gospel, and therefore will not believe in the God of the gospel, and therefore will not respond in faith to the gospel. According to Paul, no one can be saved without knowledge of the gospel. Therefore, the unevangelized are not saved.
However, one may ask: Do the unevangelized need saving? An underlying premise of this whole topic is the assumption that the unevangelized in some way merit an exception to the rule, simply because they are unevangelized. Surely God would not damn those who never knew of or how to respond to His grace, right? That’s not fair, right? Well, let us consider this. If someone does not have knowledge of the gospel, does that give them a valid excuse to be pardoned from their sin?
First of all, Paul says “no” when he adds Knowledge as one of the essential facets of the salvation of men in Romans 10:13-16. Secondly, we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin (3:9). In the above section, we saw how Scripture clearly teaches that both the evangelized and the unevangelized are both guilty before God and wicked in their hearts, and thus are both justly under the wrath of God. In light of the testimony of Scripture, and my honest interpretation of it, I am obligated to conclude that the destiny of the unevangelized is the eternal wrath of God.
Why Do We Wrestle With This Truth?
At the heart of people’s wrestling with this truth is a sense of entitlement. No human is entitled to the grace of God, for if we were, grace would cease to be grace. This being the case, neither is any man entitled to hear the good news of the grace of God. There is no right of man to the gospel of Christ, for God is not obligated to extend this gospel to any man – though He chooses to extend it to all. Related to this, we are not entitled to grace for being God’s creation. Some people argue that God loves us because He created us. However, this logic is flawed, because God clearly has not given an opportunity for salvation to Satan and his angels, even though He created them too.
I urge you, brothers and sisters, to let your logic begin with God and flow downward to men. Make God the starting point of your reasoning. First: God exists in eternal holiness and perfection. Second: He chooses to create the universe for His own glory, and in so doing forms mankind. Third: Mankind rebels against him, rejecting man’s purpose (the glory of God) and latching on to a seemingly more attractive end: the glory of creation. Fourth: God send Christ to the cross to redeem a people from sin and wrath. Five: God decides to have the news of Christ proclaimed by His church to the whole world. Six: Anyone who hears this message and repents will be saved from their sin and the wrath of God.
With this logic, beginning with God, it is impossible to reasonably assert that God is unjust in damning those who never hear this message of Christ. We should recognize the love of God manifested in the giving of a gospel to wretched people, and the justice of God manifested in the keeping of a gospel from wretched people. Is God unjust to send people to hell who never receive knowledge of the gospel? Of course not, because the warrant for our eternal punishment is not dependent upon the degree of God’s revelation we receive, but rather on the simple fact that we have sinned against Him. No unevangelized man is innocent, and therefore no unevangelized man is damned unjustly.
Perhaps a greater question is how God can justly extend grace to those who committed the most atrocious grievance in the universe.
Here are some things to think about…
- If the unevangelized are saved, then why does the Bible so clearly present the doctrine of sola fide, Faith Alone? How are men only saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8) if those who never hear of grace, and thus never respond to it in faith, are yet partakers in such grace?
- What urgency would we have for missions if the unevangelized are already going to heaven? “Well, Christianity will give them a better life on earth.” First of all, no it will not. Have you not read the many passages that speak of the world hating God’s people, and of God’s people suffering until this life is over? Secondly, why would those in the church risk their own life just so people could live differently in this life with no repercussions in Eternity?
- If the unevangelized are saved, then our evangelism is cruel, for in evangelizing the lost we are robbing them of their eternal security. If the unevangelized are saved, then why did Jesus give us the Great Commission?