What about those who have never heard the Gospel?

The last couple weeks I have been working my way through dozens of Bible and theology questions which people have submitted through that “ask a question” area in the sidebar. This one deals with the age-old question of “What about those who have never heard?” Here is the question that was sent in:

If salvation was via sacrifices etc (Jews) and then via believing in Jesus; what happens to those outside these two faiths?

There is a hidden question within this question. The obvious question is the age-old dilemma, “What about those who have never heard the Gospel?”

what about those who have never heard the gospel

But the question behind the question is “How did people receive eternal life before Jesus?” The assumption is always that the Jewish people received eternal life through obedience to the Law and following the sacrificial system instituted by Moses.

I don’t believe that anyone ever received eternal life through following the Mosaic Law or through the Levitical sacrificial system. Though many people think the Bible teaches this, it doesn’t.

If we can understand how Jewish people were saved prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus, then we can begin to answer how other people around the world may be able to receive eternal life before they have heard about Jesus.

So how did people receive eternal life before Jesus came to earth? The same way we do: by faith alone.

The Mosaic Law Never Granted Eternal Life to Anyone

A careful reading of the Mosaic Law reveals that there was no such thing as a sacrifice for willful sin. Does this mean then that people back then never sinned willfully? Of course not! They sinned willfully just as much as we do. We often know that what we are doing is wrong, but we do it anyway. It was the same for them.

Since there was no sacrifice in the Mosaic Law for willful sin, what could they do when they sinned willfully? The same thing we do! We depend on God for His grace, love, and forgiveness.

The Mosaic Law and the sacrificial system did not grant anybody eternal life.

People who lived before Jesus received eternal life the same way we do: by faith alone.

One purpose of the Levitical Law was to maintain community standards of health, safety, and well-being before God and before one another. As a theocracy, the Levitical laws functioned much like the laws in a democracy. Today, we have have national and local laws to help maintain order, peace, and security. But nobody thinks that by obeying the speed limit and paying your taxes you get to go to heaven.

sacrificial systemIt was the same for the Israelites. The Mosaic Law was to maintain peace, order, security, and safety. Because Israel was intended to be a theocracy, there were also numerous laws related to the worship of God, but again, these were not intended to grant a person eternal life, but simply to maintain fellowship with other members of the Israelite community.

There were other purposes for the law as well, but I won’t get sidetracked with that issue here. (A new book is coming out by Maxine Armstrong soon which helps shed light on the purpose of the Law… ).

How Jewish People before Jesus Received Eternal Life

Once we understand the purpose and function of the Mosaic law for Israel, we can begin to understand how people receive eternal life, even if they have not heard about Jesus. While I firmly believe the truth of Acts 4:12 that there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved, I have to argue that at least prior to the ministry of Jesus, people could have received eternal life by believing in God’s promises to rescue and deliver them, even if they didn’t know the name “Jesus.”

In other words, prior to the advent, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God gave eternal life to people who believed in Him for it. This does not mean that they simply believed that He existed any more than “believing in Jesus” means nothing more than that Jesus existed.

No, to believe in God means to believe that purely by His grace and out of His love, He gives eternal life freely to anyone and everyone who believes in Him for it.

That, I believe, is how Jewish people received eternal life in Old Testament times.

By faith, the Israelites placed themselves in the hands of God to do with as He wished. They did not know the name of Jesus, but they knew some things about God, and they believed what God had said. They believed the revelation that God had given.

But what about non-Jewish people who lived before Jesus?

So if God gave eternal life to the Jewish person who simply believed in Him based on the revelation He had been given, I think it is likely that something similar took place all around the world. I am not saying that if people simply believe what they learn about God from nature that this will be enough for God to grant them eternal life.

I do not think that natural revelation is enough revelation to bring anyone to eternal life.

However, if a person responds positively to the revelation which God has placed in creation and in the human conscience, I believe that God will make sure that this person receives more revelation.

Romans 1 and other biblical texts state that God has revealed certain truths about Himself in nature so that men are without excuse. I think that as people respond to the revelation they have received, God obligates Himself to provide more revelation to them, so that they receive enough revelation from God to either accept the offer of eternal life by faith alone, or to reject such an offer.

This then helps us understand what may be going on to people today who have never heard about Jesus.

What About Those Who Never Hear the Gospel?

So what about those who have never heard? Again, I believe that if they respond to the revelation they have received, God has obligated Himself to make sure they receive more revelation, until they get to the point where they have enough revelation to receive eternal life.

what about those who never hear the gospelNote that this level of revelation might be different for different people of different ages and of different mental capacities.

Note as well that my proposal here says nothing about children who die before they are old enough to understand the Gospel, nor does it say anything about people who are mentally handicapped who can never understand much of anything about the Gospel. Those are related, but different, questions.

How does God make such revelation available to others?

There are a variety of ways in which God can provide further revelation to those who respond to the revelation they have. Some of these forms of revelation are even mentioned in Scripture.

If a missionary is available, God could send a missionary. If a missionary is not available, God could send angels to teach these people, or through the Holy Spirit moving like wind upon the earth, God could simply whisper more revelation to those who are responding to the truth they have received. Then, of course, there are dreams and visions. We often hear reports even today of people who have dreams and visions about Jesus who may have never heard of Him before.

Bottom Line on Those Who Have Never Heard

I fully admit that some of what I have written above is speculative. The Bible is relatively silent about the eternal destiny of those who have never heard. While some people say that all those who have never heard receive eternal life (universalism), I cannot accept this idea.

Others teach a form of Christian reincarnation so that before a person’s eternal life is finally determined, they get to live a life in which they have the opportunity to hear and respond to the Gospel. I reject that view as well.

Then there are some who say that God, in His infinite foreknowledge, looks into the possible futures of a person’s life to see what that person would have done if they had heard the Gospel. This view sounds a bit like that Tom Cruise movie “Minority Report” where people are condemned for crimes they haven’t yet committed.

Some say that God gives people who die without hearing the Gospel an opportunity after death to hear and believe it. This has a bit of merit from Scripture (depending on how you understand Abraham’s bosom in Luke 16:19-31, and the statement in 1 Peter 3:19 about how Jesus preached to the spirits in prison), but again, this view is highly speculative.

The bottom line is this: We don’t know for sure exactly what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

But we do know that God is loving, kind, merciful, gracious, and resourceful.

Based on what I know of God, I don’t think it is within the character or nature of God to separate anyone from Him eternally simply because they were unlucky enough to live in an area that didn’t have a Bible. The Bible serves God’s purposes; God does not serve the Bible. God’s work in the world is not limited only to where the Bible is available.

Ultimately and finally, we can do nothing more than depend on the grace of God, that He will do what is right.

What do you think? Weigh in below with your own perspective on what happens to people who have never heard the Gospel.

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  1. says

    In fact, this is a highly speculative topic. Although I have my personal belief regarding these things here, as long as I cannot offer watertight Scriptural evidence for my confidence, I can only copy and paste some verses which could point to the fact that God meets every human being twice or even three times during his lifetime in order to show him the way he should go and to bring him to repentance.

    9 You say, ‘I am pure, without transgression; I am clean, and there is no iniquity in me.
    10 Behold, he finds occasions against me, he counts me as his enemy,
    11 he puts my feet in the stocks and watches all my paths.’
    12 “Behold, in this you are not right. I will answer you, for God is greater than man.
    13 Why do you contend against him, saying, ‘He will answer none of man’s words’?
    14 For God speaks in one way, and in two, though man does not perceive it.
    15 In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on men, while they slumber on their beds,
    16 then he opens the ears of men and terrifies them with warnings,
    17 that he may turn man aside from his deed and conceal pride from a man;
    18 he keeps back his soul from the pit, his life from perishing by the sword.
    19 “Man is also rebuked with pain on his bed and with continual strife in his bones,
    20 so that his life loathes bread, and his appetite the choicest food.
    21 His flesh is so wasted away that it cannot be seen, and his bones that were not seen stick out.
    22 His soul draws near the pit, and his life to those who bring death.
    23 If there be for him an angel, a mediator, one of the thousand, to declare to man what is right for him,
    24 and he is merciful to him, and says, ‘Deliver him from going down into the pit; I have found a ransom;
    25 let his flesh become fresh with youth; let him return to the days of his youthful vigor’;
    26 then man prays to God, and he accepts him; he sees his face with a shout of joy, and he restores to man his righteousness.
    27 He sings before men and says: ‘I sinned and perverted what was right, and it was not repaid to me.
    28 He has redeemed my soul from going down into the pit, and my life shall look upon the light.’
    29 “Behold, God does all these things, twice, three times, with a man,
    30 to bring back his soul from the pit, that he may be lighted with the light of life.”

    (Job 33:9-30 ESV)

    What do you think, Jeremy, could we read the verses beginning with verse 23 as possibly messianic (I am also thinking of 1 Tim 2:5)?

  2. says

    Jeremy, pretty much agree with you on this one. Jim R. and I have come to call this the “accountability for revealed light” doctrine. Go holds people accountable for believing what is revealed to them about Him and what they are able to understand about him. This answers the question of those who have never heard, of children too young to understand, and of adults with limited mental capacity as well as others. Also, as you pointed out, as we receive the light that we have been given, God gives more light or more revelation, as we reject the light that has been revealed, it leads to more darkness. Bottom line is that we have to understand and trust the character of God and know that he is just and can only act justly.

    Pastor FedEx

    • says

      I was a bit nervous with where I was going with this idea, but am glad to hear that others have been thinking something similar. I love the insights of Jim R. Thanks for letting me know!

  3. Randy Baxter says

    That was one of the first questions I asked The Lord shortly after becoming a believer back in 1971. The answer He gave me went something like this: “You are created in My image. If you, a created being in My image, are concerned about people you do not know, how much more concerned do you think I am over people I do know and who are in fact my children. Trust Me that I, The Lord of all the earth will do what is right for every human being.” I have not needed any other explanation since that day.

  4. Shawn Trumbo says

    Honestly Jeremy I was afraid to read this. But was pleasantly surprised. I believe if a person responds to the revelation they are given God will give them more. In this age I believe everyone who is saved is saved by believing on the name of Jesus. The problem is that people underestimate the number of people who have heard his name and God’s ability to reveal it to them. Also that the vast majority will reject the revelation they have and few will ultimately be saved. Even the majority of those who name the name of Jesus are not saved. This is a terrible truth. Still God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. He weeps over them. He gives everyone a chance.

    • says

      You may be right. I think one reason God left it vague in Scripture is to increase our desire to tell others about Jesus. Because ultimately, it is not just about getting people in heaven, but about helping them live lives in accordance to values of the Kingdom of God as well.

  5. Randy says

    Jeremy when you said “The bottom line is this: We don’t know for sure exactly what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.” you could have added “We don’t know for sure exactly what happens to those who have heard the Gospel.” Both statements aren’t a matter of faith, but fact.

    • Shasseer says

      There are questions that we will not be able to answer. But God in his infinite and absolute wisdom already provide a way out and I think this way is faith. Our thought is not God`s thought. Whathe plans we will not be able to understand. One thing we are sure of is that salvation comes trough Jesus for those who are living now.

  6. Santos says

    2 Corinthians 4:3-4 KJV
    But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost: [4] In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.

    My question is, if God is really interested in saving people then he’s doing a poor job. I mean, I respectfully asked God this question, I also asked him does the god of this world have more power of influence than the God who created the world?

    Notice Paul’s words if the good news is hid, its hid in their minds. Before we became believers we were Alienated in our minds, so what do I feel Paul is saying, that the Good news of what Jesus accomplished on the Cross on our behalf is the ultimate Salvation for its all. Many may not get a chance to hear the good news i.e, special needs kids, young kids who pass before they ever understood anything of God. The good news may not reach every individual Soul, So what happens to them, I believe that the Cross will make provision for everyone of them.

    I’m not certain, but then again who really is.

    • says

      You ask deep questions. Notice, of course, that it is not God who blinded their minds, but the god of this world, which is the devil. Nevertheless, as you point out, if God wants to rescue and redeem them, why does He seem so “unsuccessful”? There are theoretical explanations, but those are beyond the scope of a blog comment …

  7. says

    Jeremy I think the key to the truth is in John 1:9-I don’t know exactly how or in what manifestation, but the light (knowledge) is given to everyone and what measure they are given is what they become responsible for. And I agree and have often said ‘ it has always been about faith, in what God has said’

  8. says

    I think we all use our finite mind to portray God’s mind. God’s ways is too large for our finite mind to fathom. As you have said, in the Old Testament days “by faith we have eternal live.” Anyway even believers have to wait for judgment days to learn whether they have eternal life or not. Remember Jesus Christ said, I do not reconise your voice. No one is sure but we must empty ourselves to let Christ in. Remember what Paul said, It is not I but Christ lives in me. We cannot do anything without Christ. So we have to leave it to the lord to reach the unreachables. As the Lord said, He will not leave you or forsake you ( the reachables and unreachables).

  9. Elder E.B. Olatunji says

    well done Jerry God would uphold you, God know how to save and spread the gospel, if not we could have not heard in Africa mostly some part Nigeria, up till today some were still in darkness they have not heard about the gospel but when it is time for judgement, surely they must be judge, This question it is only God that can give the accurate answer to it, for it was written that both young and old would appear in the throne of judgement either you a day child or not, for there is/was no repentance after death, and to die its once, thanks.

    • Mark Brown says

      In some of the comments I’ve seen a theme of “no repentence after death”.

      In my study of scripture in the last few years, I see hints of the opposite actually. The Glory/Presence of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. (That’s not even a passage for final judgement, it just came to me now for some reason).

      As Jeremy noted above, I believe there is no other name under heaven by which man must be saved… none other than THE LAMB OF GOD, Jesus.
      Where confusing doctrine seems to enter is the interpretation of Heb.9:27,28

      “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”

      I do not see it saying here at all that there will be no room for repentance after death. What it does say is that there will be judgment.
      In Jesus (the same yesterday, today and forever), all judgment is for His good purpose… to draw all men to Himself, for (and in) the Glory of God.
      So, yes, judgment will happen (for us all, in one way or another), and then every knee will bow (a forced confession of a vanquished enemy? Or rather, humbled repentance before an obvious and all-consuming fire of Glory/Love).

      There are almost innumerable scriptures that clearly state that the redemptive sacrifice (God’s plan of salvation) of Jesus is enough to save all (even all of creation groaning for it).

      There is also much of the Word that suggests (perhaps vaguely and mysteriously) that this redemption will be complete (not partial; which would suggest the power of sin, Satan or death will win out over the majority).

      This is not Universalism! This is still Christ alone, the one Way/Truth and Life.
      As Jeremy mentioned above, I believe it is purposely left vague so that all do not take proclaiming and entering the Kingdom NOW lightly.
      Peace to you all (in Christ alone) :) my brothers,

      • says

        Hmm. Interesting. I often wish God had made some things more clear about what happens after death. I assume there are good reasons that he didn’t. I see your point, and while I am uncomfortable with it, I am uncomfortable with the other alternatives as well! Ha!

  10. says

    Brother Jeremy I would add a rejoiner. We all know that the Lord will return to our planet earth a second time and will reign for 1.000 years. As He had instructed His disciples to go to the end of the world to preach the “Good News.” During His second time on earth, He will commend us to bring the Good News to all the people who have not heard it. So there is no excuse that we have not heard it.

      • says

        Absolutely no. What I am saying is that everyone will have an opportunity to hear the good news, but not everyone will accept it,so they will be judged accordingly. Remember, I said there would be no excuse to say I had not heard the “Good News.” I hope I have clarified my point

  11. Clive Clifton says

    Interesting, I would assume the question comes from our innate compassion for the living and the dead. Where does compassion come from. God promised to put His law in our minds and write them on our heart. Then no man need seek another to be taught.

    We All know right from wrong, it’s inbuilt by the creator. It’s unnatural to kill or hurt. When we are attacked we try to defend ourselves and prohibit the attacker from doing harm. In ancient days it was an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth etc. Jesus said proffer the other cheek and love your enemy, that was not something new it always has been that way.

    We are called to be peace makers not peace keepers. What do you think Jesus would do in Putin or Obama’s place today. How many who read that immediately thought, “Oh yes but that was Jesus, He was different, we deal with reality”, “What” and Jesus didn’t when he suffered and died for His enemies.

    Over the years I have mentored many young and older men (and some women but I’m not supposed to in our Church) they all without exception know right from wrong. A young man I am mentoring now (I prefer to call it discipleship) said “I am tempted many times to do wrong, like steel or tell lies, but I refuse to do it and turn away. Then I find I’m thinking these thoughts again and again, but eventually they get less and eventually leave me”. He is 15 and to all intense and purposes is shy, but the reality is he knows how to keep his council and not look foolish in front of his foolish friends.

    I don’t know if that story is helpful or rings any bells, but we really all do know right from wrong no matter what rational or spin we may want to put on justifying doing wrong.

    When Jesus died all the world was justified, past and present as past present and future were then all His. He is the real Time Lord not Dr Who as seen on the BBC children’s program, but unlike Dr Who, Jesus is now outside time and the Lord of it.

    Yes all have been judged no one has “got away with it”, all evil has a price to be paid as goodness receives it’s rewards. Someone said that we are probably all in for a surprise at judgement day. A bit like when we go away on holiday and meet our next door neighbor and say “well, I never expected you to be here”. Love Clive X

  12. says

    Some might ask, “Then why send missionaries?” God’s plan of redemption is not just for individuals, but for cultures as well. The gospel, if properly taufht, frees whole villages, tribes & nations from human sacrifice, salvery, & other horrors.

    In America today, many Christians refuse to allow God to change our culture through the gospel Jesus preached. We present some “plan of salvation,” then dedicate our lives to politically fighting any efforts to allow our nation to adopt the principles Jesus taught as a basis for merting needs. We work hard to insure oppression, poverty and lack of opportunity to progress is not granted by the voice we have been given, as Christians, to influence our entire society to do what Jesus did.

    Jeremy, in Romans 2, I think, Paul says those who have the law are saved by keeping it and those who do not are saved by obeying their conscience. I think the law Jesus nailed to the cross was Oral Torah Mishna, harsh Jewish law that oppressed. Extreme religiosity. The higher law of God is always in season. Salvation through the revelation of the person of Jesus, by the Holy Spirit is necessary for those who have heard & those who haven’t. Often, the “gospel” we’ve heard is as much rubbish as the legalistic tradition of the Pharisees!

    • says

      I love that! God’s plan of redemption is not just for individuals, but for cultures as well. So true (and so neglected). Also, what you say at the end there is absolutely vital as well. Much of what passes for the “gospel” today is legalism.

  13. Roberto says

    Apart from The Old Testament Heroes, what about Greeks, Persians, Romans before Jesus; Chinese people, Aztecs, Mayans, Incas, North American Indians before colonization, lost tribes in the Amazon (Taíno people, my country ancestors) or the cannibal Fore tribe in New Guinea.

    I was questioning this myself without looking for an answer on the internet. I started to read the New Testament consistently from Mathew on, asking the Lord to reveal this mystery. After reading and reading without success, yesterday I came across an astonishing answer: Romans 2:14-15.

    Then I started to look on the web and found your article.

    New International Version (NIV)

    Romans 2:14-15
    14 Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. 15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.

    Thanks again.

    • says

      Thanks, Roberto. Yes, conscience plays a big role in this. Although, Paul goes on to say that conscience cannot provide sufficient revelation for a person to believe in Jesus for eternal life. That is why I wrote what I did in the article above.

  14. Roberto says

    Sorry! missed a verse.

    Romans 2:14-16

    14 Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law.
    15 They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.
    16 This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.

  15. says

    Hi Jeremy,

    You made the following statement:
    “Then there are some who say that God, in His infinite foreknowledge, looks into the possible futures of a person’s life to see what that person would have done if they had heard the Gospel. This view sounds a bit like that Tom Cruise movie “Minority Report” where people are condemned for crimes they haven’t yet committed.”
    concerning the concept of God's infinite foreknowledge that some Christians hold.

    This idea that God looks into the possible futures of a person's life to see what that person would have done if they had heard the Gospel—I view as placing a limit on God's foreknowing capability.

    Some Christians say that God foreknows what a person will do when they hear the Gospel because God sees the past and the future as one big picture all at once since God is outside of time that He created as part of this universe. Again, I view this view as placing a limit on God's foreknowing capability.

    Some Christians (primarily Calvinists) say that God foreknows what a person will do when they hear the Gospel because God before He created this universe unconditionally chose who He would make (irresistibly) accept the Gospel (accept Christ as their savior). Again, I view this view as placing a severe limit on God's foreknowing capability.

    My favorite way to talk about God's foreknowledge of who will accept the Gospel (Christ as their savior) is as follows. God foreknows those whom He can convince/persuade to make a free will decision to accept His call/drawing. Yes, God foreknows more than just who will accept His call/drawing; God foreknows those whom He can convince/persuade to make a free will decision to accept His call/drawing.

    • says

      Hi Jeremy,

      I have been using my first and last name only on comments that I made earlier. I forgot and added my middle initial on this comment in my name. Sorry for causing a problem. I’ll try harder in the future to remember not to put my middle initial in my name. David C. Geminden and David Geminden are the same warm blooded character. Again, sorry.

      Your website software might allow you to edit my name in this comment to David Geminden. Your website software does not allow me to edit comments that I make errors in.

    • says

      Yes, that is one possible explanation of foreknowledge. My personal view is that God’s foreknowledge consists of all the future, including what will happen, what won’t happen, and what might happen.

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