Spirit of Grace Ministries
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Spirit of Grace Ministries
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What About Those who Have not Heard?

How shall they believe?

by Dennis Pollock

When secular talk show hosts interview Christian pastors and leaders, they love to ask a question that seems to have no reasonable answer: "What happens to those who never get to hear the gospel? Must they go to hell?" Too often the pastor squirms and fumbles for words, and goes on to say that God is merciful and they must leave that up to Him." Sometimes they try to get out of the dilemma by adding that they do not want to judge anyone. Truly God is merciful and it is wrong to judge, but those things really have nothing to do with the question asked. Responding to this question does not require judging; it simply requires us to open our Bibles and discover what God says about the matter.

To understand this question we must consider the spiritual state of the unbeliever. The Bible is quite plain about this. Regardless of whether the sinner has heard the gospel a thousand times, two times, or never, their spiritual state is exactly the same. In Ephesians we read:

And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience… (Ephesians 2:1,2)

The One Great Need

The clear teaching of Scripture is that those without Christ are spiritually dead. They have one overwhelming need, and that is life! Living people have many needs: they need food and clothing, friends and shelter, love and encouragement. But dead people need none of these things. If a dead person can be said to have a need at all, it is life. And life is something that only God can give.

This is not only true for serial killers and mob bosses; it is equally true for university presidents and doctors who volunteer their services every year for poor children in Africa. According to the Scriptures every person outside of Jesus Christ is spiritually dead. Their hearts beat, they breathe, they eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, they walk and talk and attend ball games, but they have no spiritual life. They are, to use the Biblical phrase, "without God and without hope." In Ephesians Paul goes on to say: "we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others."

This is the state of every sinner and applies to those who live in America where there are a dozen churches within a two mile radius, and those who live in a remote village in Saudi Arabia where there is not a single church within 100 miles. It was true of every believer before Christ changed their hearts. We all lived for the lusts of our flesh, and we were all in the category of people known as "children of wrath." The sinful state is a universal state. Whether bank president, philosophy professor, or mafia hit man, whether Chinese, African, Mexican, or American, every sinner lives for his own selfish purposes, and lives under the frown of a holy God. He is a child of wrath and has no spiritual life whatsoever. He is "dead in trespasses and sins."

God’s Enemies

Paul writes to the Colossians, "you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled…" (Colossians 1:21). Not only is the sinner alienated from God and Christ, he is an enemy to them. His mind, actions, and lifestyle are opposed to all that God desires to accomplish in this world. The sinner lives for himself; Christ demands that we deny self and follow Him. Paul writes, "For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life" (Romans 5:10).

Furthermore all sinners are operating with a sin nature which dominates their lives, thoughts, and actions. Paul writes, "For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit" (Romans 8:5). He declares that "the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be." Not only does the unbeliever reject the holy commandments of his Creator, in his present state he is not even capable of subjecting himself to the law of God. Apart from the new birth, any efforts to live morally will be failures. Many unbelieving men and women attempt to live noble, decent lives, but from God's perspective they fail miserably. Because the deep root of flesh and selfishness is not eradicated, their attempts to be good and do good are horribly tainted with the stench of corruption. God is not impressed. Paul sums it up by saying, "So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God" (Romans 8:8).

This is true for all unbelievers – whether they have heard the gospel once, twice, a thousand times, or not at all. What this means is that any sinner, from some village Hindu woman who has never heard the gospel once in her life, to the son of a Baptist preacher who grew up hearing the gospel every Sunday… no sinner can possibly be accepted by God in heaven without the fundamental change provided through Christ known as the new birth. Jesus declared emphatically, "Unless you believe that I am He, you shall die in your sins," and that has not changed.

Life-giver

The Scriptures proclaim Jesus to be the life-giver. He says, "For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world… I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst" (John 6:33,35). When God created Adam, He created him as a whole man. He had all the required features, organs, glands, muscles, and tendons. But something was still lacking. It was only when God breathed into Adam the breath of life that he became a living person. Today we have a similar need. We start out in life physically alive but spiritually dead. We desperately need Jesus to breathe in us the breath of divine life.

When we put our faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior, an amazing thing happens. We are given the gift of the Holy Spirit and new life springs forth from within. Ephesians says, "having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise" (Ephesians 1:13). Suddenly we find the Bible interesting. We actually listen to the pastor's sermons and learn from them. We pray at times other than meal times. We go to Bible studies. We suddenly have an interest in things pertaining to God. What in the world has happened to us? We have come alive spiritually!

Lifeless

Jesus says, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you" (John 6:53). "You have no life in you" – this is the natural state of men and women apart from Christ. Football players and bank clerks, Hollywood stars and the mechanics that fix their Jaguars, CEOs of huge corporations and the ladies that clean out their offices every night – all without Christ are in exactly the same boat – they have no life in them. They have one pressing, overwhelming, desperate need, and that is life through Jesus Christ.

As we consider these truths, we see the state of the natural man, and it is not a pretty picture – alienated from God, unable to please God, dead in his sins, an enemy of God, and dominated by his sin nature. Not possessing the Spirit, and storing up wrath which will be expressed in the day of God’s wrath – that great judgment bar of God. So what happens to those who die having never heard the gospel ? The exact same thing that happens when someone dies who has heard the gospel five thousand times – they slip into the afterlife without Christ and without hope.

Some may protest, "This is not fair. Everyone should have a chance to hear the gospel! And if they don't hear it, they shouldn't be punished for their sins." But is this true? Suppose God had not sent Christ. Suppose He had allowed all of us to live out our lives without Christ, and then pay for our sins in hell. Would that have been fair? Was God obligated to send Jesus, and is He obligated to make sure every living person hears about Him? If so, then there is no such thing as amazing grace. It would not be amazing or even grace if it were somehow God's duty to send Christ. No, He sent Christ out of love and grace. And He has the right to say that only those who receive this grace will be granted the gift of eternal life.

Fair – or Better than Fair

There is nothing unfair about hell. In fact hell is perfect justice. God is a very precise accountant, and He will provide a fitting recompense for every sin that was ever committed. This is exactly what the sinner will experience in hell. He will suffer not for anyone else's sins, but for his own – and to the exact degree which he deserves. According to Jesus some sinners will be beaten with "many stripes" and some with "few stripes." But no sinner will be thrown into hell feeling he's getting a lousy deal. The judgment bar of God will prove conclusively that he deserves exactly what he will receive.

But in Christ we get something better than justice. We receive grace. It is heaven that is "not fair," not hell. Heaven is better than fair! And this grace which enables us to live eternally in heaven is reserved for a very exclusive club – those who have believed on God's only begotten Son. John writes, "And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life" (1 John 5:11,112). It could hardly be more simple or plain: have Jesus – have life. Don't have Jesus – don't have life! How wrong most people are in their assumptions about how God determines who will be allowed into heaven! They suppose He will scratch His head and think long and hard about every individual, carefully weighing their good deeds against their bad deeds, considering various mitigating circumstances and finally deciding whether such a man or woman is worthy to live with Him forever. But in truth it will not be nearly so complicated. In fact it will be downright simple. Those who have the indwelling Spirit as a result of their faith in Christ will be welcomed into heaven gladly. Those without the Spirit will be rejected out of hand. Case closed!

Priority of Evangelism

It is an awareness of these truths that makes evangelism of the highest priority for evangelicals. When missionaries go to foreign lands where many have never heard the gospel, they are not going to an innocent people who have been given a free pass because of their ignorance of Jesus Christ. They are going as carriers of the life of Christ to a people dead in their selfishness and sins, a people desperately in need of the divine life that only Jesus gives. The conversion of the lowliest, poorest, simplest individual is a monumental event of vastly greater import than all the political news, sports news, and celebrity gossip of the last fifty years. The angels in heaven are far more thrilled when some poor African village granny, who makes her living selling ears of corn on the streets, gets saved, than when some wealthy American celebrity donates a million dollars to his favorite charity.

What a privilege to be the representatives of Jesus Christ to a darkened world! We share the gospel not to condemn. The sinner is condemned already by his own selfish, greedy, lustful, ungrateful, ungodly life. We proclaim Christ, the Life-giver! We proclaim amazing grace. Yes, God could have allowed us all to go our own ways, and suffer the consequences for our sins. But in His great love and compassion He has made a way out. He has offered life to those who will believe on His Son. But that life is only for believers. As Peter declared so long ago, "Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven, given among men, by which we must be saved."

 

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