In the present-day perspective of religious pluralism and the widespread acceptance of ideological inclusivism, is it really desirable—or even possible—to talk about those who have never heard about Jesus? For a variety of reasons, I believe that it is not only desirable and possible, but also vitally necessary to understanding the meaning and importance of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But how? How can the question concerning those who have never heard about Jesus be answered? In many ways, the answer to this issue ultimately comes down to just a few basic things. If we understand:
- The nature of God,
- The nature of ourselves and our sin, and
- The nature of Christ’s identity and mission,
then an adequate answer can be given to the question. But by using the word “adequate” here, does not necessarily mean “emotionally satisfying.” While the answer shared will existentially satisfy some, it may well disturb and anger others. And that, unfortunately, is sometimes unavoidable. In a society which disdains certain central aspects of the Christian faith, some level of offense is an inevitable by-product of discussing the truth of its message.
Christ’s gospel sometimes does insult and offend some of our basic assumptions about life, truth, and religion. When the apostle Paul noted that the gospel was, “a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness to the Greeks,” he was well aware that some people would hate and misunderstand the message for what it was, no matter how reasonably, gently, or compellingly it was presented.
In this first part, we are going to approach an answer by looking at what the Bible says about this, and then later in parts two and three, we are going to discuss how we can answer individuals who are asking us the question when we are sharing Christ with them.
Romans chapter 1, beginning in verse 18 says that God gave all human beings a witness of Himself through what theologians have come to call “general revelation.”
The argument runs as follows: Even people who have never heard of Christ are without excuse before God for their rejection of Him because they have enough information to know there is a God, but they do not acknowledge Him as truly being God. In fact, in the verses that follow, Paul continues to explain the ungodly results of this rejection, concluding in verse 32 that the things these people do are “worthy of death.”
It seems clear that at least for people practicing idolatry, sexual immorality, etc., the verdict is not promising. But what about the average people of the world, those who have never done anything that bad or that evil? Does God also condemn them? If we continue reading in Romans 2, we see that for those people who have never heard of Jesus, God will judge them by their own standards. Whenever they make a moral judgment, God considers that a moral standard that they must also keep themselves.
But herein lies the problem: who lives up to their own standards? Who can honestly say, “I am not a hypocrite?” And according to Romans 2:17ff, even the Jews who had the Old Testament Law and the Ten Commandments couldn’t and didn’t fulfill the righteous and holy demands of a perfect God.
Paul concludes his reflections on the state of humanity in Romans 3:10, when he states categorically that, “there is none righteous, not even one.” Why? “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (verse 23). What does this mean? It means just this: God is holy and He demands holiness (perfection) from those who would be in His presence (1 Peter 1:16). He simply doesn’t grade on a curve. You either get a perfect score of 100% or you fail completely (cf., James 2:10).
And when you really think about it, who wants a God who “fudges” and lets basically anyone into heaven? That kind of God isn’t worthy of worship. That’s a God who is just like us! And it would make heaven a place just like earth, which is not the kind of heaven I—or anyone else—would want to spend all eternity in.
All of this begins to answer the first question raised above. When we get a clearer picture of who God really is, who we are, and what He requires of us, we begin to see a very different picture than the one we may have painted of God and ourselves before. The God of the Bible is a God who is perfect and holy, who demands that kind of perfection from all who would be in His presence.
Consequently, we will see in part two why it is so centrally important for everyone on earth to have an opportunity to hear and respond to the person of Jesus Christ.
It is an obvious fact that there has been many people and people groups throughout history that never heard the Gospel- at least the Gospel that most of us are familiar with- from the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This question you are raising is one that I raised when I was a youth to Sunday School teachers but was quickly dismissed (because IMO it was difficult one to answer in a satisfactory manner and is not usually addressed properly anywhere). I have my own answer to this question and it is rather simple based on my own understanding of Romans and Scripture. I’m looking forward to your Parts 2 and 3.