What about those who haven’t heard the gospel?

I recently received a question about those who have not heard the gospel.  How is it that they can be saved if they have never heard about Christ’s sacrifice?

My response is below:

You’ve raised a great question!  I think it is similar to the question of how Old Testament saints were saved, as they did not have any knowledge of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.  Remember that they thought the Messiah would be a political leader who would free them from earthly oppression.  They did not have a developed understanding of the atoning work of Christ even though they had the Old Testament.  In this way their situation is similar to that of people who have never heard the gospel.

There are a few ways we can think through this.

First, as you point out, God has some revelation of himself in general revelation and people can be held accountable to how they respond to this revelation.  Paul teaches in Romans 2 that people are judged based on the revelation that they have.  At a minimum, people everywhere are endowed with a moral conscience.  Paul goes on to teach in Romans 3 that God passed over former sins (referring to those committed by Old Testament Jews) as he looked forward towards Christ.  Even though the people had no awareness of Christ, God forgave them on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice in response to their faith.  It seems perfectly reasonable to think that those who have not heard the gospel will receive the same treatment.

Another way to understand this is in terms of Molinism.  Consider Acts 17, where Paul teaches that God chooses where and when everyone is born so that, “they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him…” (v27).  It seems that God knows what people will accept the gospel should they hear it and so orders the world that those who will respond positively to the gospel will have the opportunity to do so.

Finally, we need not think that those that are beyond our reach are beyond God’s reach.  We do see stories in scripture of people giving dreams and visions to people and so reveals himself to them.  Consider the apostle Paul’s own story as an example.

Sincerely,

Matt Bilyeu


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