This topic we will discuss has ruffled many people’s feathers, both believers and unbelievers. The problem with these individuals is a lack of trust in God and a desire to complicate something so simple. Sometimes, there is nothing worse than those who wish to throw the multitudes into confusion by overcomplicating every truth because it hinders rather than helps people. Confusion (which has already hindered the faith of many) has done enough damage in Laodicea!
As an aside topic (speaking of our desire to help, not confuse people), all Bible teachers, scholars, and apologists need to present the truth in as simple a manner (as much as their teachings will allow) to make spiritual growth for their believing followers as easy as possible. Every teacher and scholar could simplify their teachings through more readable sentences if they wanted to (without compromising the truth). After all, it is their job to teach their listeners, so why make learning more difficult? That makes no sense whatsoever. It is highly doubtful that the excuse, “they can’t help it, that’s just how they write,” is a valid one. True, some things are more complex and challenging to explain, and there are more difficult teachings in Scripture that can only be taught and explained so many ways. Deep, intense Bible study is a discipline that requires a lot of digging and research through the Spirit’s power. 2 Timothy 2:15 states, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” Indeed, we must engage with our intellect every time we study God’s Word, but we must do so with an open and humble heart.
Anyway, let’s now continue with our topic. In a nutshell, the question many have asked is, “What about people in the most remote parts of the world who have never heard the gospel? How can they cry out to God if they never had the opportunity to be saved?” The answer is that all people have the time and opportunities. Those who never believed did so because they never wanted to be saved. So let’s start with the basics.
It should be evident to all that everyone knows about God through creation (Romans 1:19-21) and through the human spirit that He has imparted to all human beings at birth (Genesis 2:7). These aspects bespeak natural revelation, the first and most basic way God has chosen to reveal Himself to humanity. But our question is not, “how can people know about God,” but “how can all those in distant lands who already know about Him receive the gospel?” Romans 10:14 is the first passage that comes to mind because it states, “ How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?” This verse does, to some extent, answer the question for us.
Firstly, it is not enough to believe in the existence of God. It doesn’t matter if anyone believes in the presence of a supreme being, nor does putting another name to Him change a person’s standing with Christ. James 2:19-20 clarifies that “ You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? No one can say they are a believer without manifesting a changed life, something only possible for those who have put their faith and trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Anyone who wants to enter God’s kingdom must do so on His terms. John 14:6 sums this up beautifully when it says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” No one can ever approach God without faith in the person and work of His Son Jesus Christ.
6 But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.
There is not one single passage in all Scripture that supports this false view that simply acknowledging or believing in the existence of God is enough for one to enter the kingdom. All those who have, do, and will get in will have done so through faith in Jesus. This teaching is based on Scripture and started from the very beginning with our first parents, Adam and Eve. After the fall, both accepted the coats of skin that God offered them to cover up their nakedness. By receiving the animal coats (representing the sacrifice of Christ on the cross), our original parents put their faith in trust in God’s Son by accepting that, in the future, He would provide payment or atonement for their sins. Indeed, they did not fully understand how this would occur (as all the old testament saints didn’t), but what matters is that they acted in faith that God would provide a way. We see this continued throughout the entire Old Testament through animal sacrifices which looked forward to Christ’s death on our behalf. The first believers till the last ones to draw breath all have this in common—they believed in Jesus Christ. Through faith, the believers under the old covenant looked forward to what the Messiah would do through rituals and sacrifices. Today, we look back at what He has done for us.
10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.
Those who wish to be saved must believe in Jesus Christ. Those who doubt God can provide salvation for all those who genuinely want it doubt God Himself because they put Him in a box by limiting His sovereignty. If our Creator could provide the very first humans (Adam, Eve, and those after) with something to go by, how will He fail to provide the good news of His Son to all people? God did not mix up and confuse the languages at Babel to make it harder for some to be saved. On the contrary, He did this to preserve humanity from Satan to guard and protect free-will. Otherwise, Satan (and us) would have wiped us out a long time ago. Nationalism is a good thing and one that helps to guard and protect human choice.
7 Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. 8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. 9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 10 As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, 11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
Our eternal Savior can use whatever means necessary to bring the gospel to all those who want it, whether that be through missionaries, divine revelation, or whatever the Lord chooses to spread the message of Himself. There may be limits to the human brain that wishes to believe the possible as impossible with God. But God’s power and wisdom are unlimited. Once a person accepts the existence of God and wants to know more, the Lord will not fail to bring the message of good news to them.
The problem with those who accept natural revelation but go no further is that they have no actual desire to know anymore because they are content to go only that distance and no further. Accepting natural revelation is a good start, though simple belief in God doesn’t mean a person wants to commit their lives to Jesus Christ through faith. It is not enough to appreciate God’s existence or the sacrifice of His Son because one must accept the Lord in faith. This choice will entail sacrificing whatever is necessary to suffer and follow Jesus.
34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
Everything we have written above eliminates any unfairness some may credit to God. Salvation does not depend on time and circumstances (that would be unfair) but on one’s desire to believe and the free will it takes to do so. And God will not allow anyone who wants to believe in Him to die prematurely before they get that chance. So anyone who never believes did so on their own accord. The gospel does not change for some people based upon their location and culture because that would be unfair and would require us to conclude that the Bible teaches two gospels, which it does not. Salvation has always been by faith through grace alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 11). To conclude, it is most dangerous to believe that diffrent gospels exist for different people, a danger Paul warned very strongly against.
8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
We would be remiss if we also didn’t mention the fact that EVERY tribe, tongue, and nation that received the message of good news had to be evangelized and that each got its turn. Clearly, some regions of the earth mass-received the gospel before others. And although the Middle East, Europe and the close surrounding areas seemed to have been exposed to it more initially, many of them too were once “pagans” like everyone else who had to have the gospel preached to them at some point. The only difference between the Middle East, Europe and the rest of the world (you take North and South America and the First Nations peoples as but one example) was the timing. Some lands were exposed to the good news before others, not because they were better, but because the gospel spread across the world based on when the inhabitants of each nation (so I believe) were ready to receive it (so no unfairness or racism involved here). The parables below (spoken before Jesus gave the “great commission”) confirm that the growth of the kingdom here on earth started out small (in small pockets of the world) but then spread out throughout the earth to become much larger and more established with the advancement of the gospel despite its humble beginnings.
31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
And the passages we have from the New Testament seem to indicate pretty clearly the need for a messenger to take the good news of the gospel to those who wish to get saved (our passage right below).
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, 2 a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. 3 About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, “Cornelius.” 4 And he stared at him in terror and said, “What is it, Lord?” And he said to him, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 And now send men to Joppa and bring one Simon who is called Peter. 6 He is lodging with one Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the sea.” 7 When the angel who spoke to him had departed, he called two of his servants and a devout soldier from among those who attended him, 8 and having related everything to them, he sent them to Joppa.
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Those who never got/get saved (wherever they are or have been in the world) never wanted to be in the first place. Those who did accept the gospel (whenever and wherever it was given) were among those who wished to receive Christ. Either way, everyone across the world regardless of time, location, and culture who wished to “drink of the water of life without cost” (Revelation 22:17) have done and will continue to do so. For it will never be the case that anyone who wanted to be saved was ever rejected or turned away by our Lord and Savior (John 6:37). Otherwise, God would be unjust.
However, we cannot rule out the possibility that some throughout the world received the gospel by other ways besides missionaries/evangelists. It is possible (although something we can’t stake down with certainty) that (for whatever reasons only the Lord knows) that God has given the gospel message to different peoples all over the world through various means. Visions are but one possible example that come to mind. God is sovereign and He has no limitations. Therefore, we should not act as if we know the answer to this with absolute certainty. There may be other ways God does and has brought the gospel to remote and distant lands other then through missionaries and evangelists (even if evangelism has been the primary way He has done so). That and it is also possible (though impossible to confirm because of all the unattainable details required that we do not and cannot have) that some people took their knowledge of what they did know (offering up sacrifices as an act of true trust and belief that looked forward to the coming Messiah) before the tower of Babel and took it with them into the lands in which they settled. Abel offered a sacrifice that showed his inner faith in the coming Savior (the details of which he and all other Old Testament saints did not know). And this was long before God formed the nation of Israel to be a light and witness to those around them. Could some peoples have carried some of these beliefs and rituals with them into far away lands after Babel? It is possible (although doesn’t seem to have been the case), but something that will remain unknowable to the church until we see Christ face to face in resurrection. Needless to say, we know that God is just and that various people from all tribes, tongues, and nations will share eternity with their heavenly forever. That has always been the case, and will be so presently on into the future (see passage below).
9 After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
With all the above said, the words above may cause us to ask, “What about the mentally handicap and babies that die before reaching the age of accountability?” The simple answer, (without needing to spend much time on this), is that both categories go to heaven because they never had the opportunity to believe. Some dislike this simply because it seems that God has given them a free ticket to Heaven. So they ask, “why would God set them up for success and not everyone else?” Again, the question is, “are these individuals in heaven or Hell,” not, “why allow them a free ticket to Heaven.” There is only one answer here and it can only be one or the other. We know that God is just and would never condemn anyone who never had the free will (the very purpose man was placed on the earth) to choose for Himself. It is true that death and mental disabilities are a result of the curse of sin that man brought upon himself. But since we are to choose, then those who lack the ability to do this will be saved. It matters little what some people may think about this. The same complaint of injustice could just easily come from those who say God sending them to Hell would be unfair because that isn’t what they chose due to their circumstances. But the Lord is not unfair in sending people to Heaven for these reasons. All we need to know is that everything God does is fair and just, and that should give us peace on this matter. To say that, “we just don’t know,” is simply false. We can know based upon the awesome character of our God. If we know Him well enough, then we should know the answer to this.