Do Those Who Don’t Hear the Gospel Perish?




Questions


If you are open with your faith you have probably had this question asked to you by new believers, unbelievers, or mature believers testing your witness. This is a fair question to ask. As Christians, we profess that only those who put their faith in Christ will be saved. The logical deduction is that in order to believe in something, you must know about it (Romans 10:13-15). And if you must know about it, then you must have it presented to you in some capacity. Carrying on from this, there are countless tribes and “nations” that haven’t heart the word “Christ” at any point in their existence. So, what about those people? Do they unfairly perish in eternal damnation because the opportunity to repent was never presented to them? Is it not unloving of God to allow them to go without hearing the gospel? Is God not evil in allowing this to happen? Is there another rhetorical question here I could ask? Why yes there is. If these questions have saturated your own thoughts at some point, would it not be good for you to continue on to the rest of the article?


Qualifiers


As pretty much always, we need to begin with definitions, albeit simple this time. The definition we are now concerned with is salvation. Salvation is quite simple in definition. I would define it as follows:


God saving man from his rebellion against God.


For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” -Romans 5:10


So, Christianity, in one heart and one soul (Acts 4:32, Ephesians 4), believes that man is born into sin and thus at enmity with God. Man, no matter how hard he tries, due to his sinful and wicked nature, cannot save himself. Paul Washer says to imagine laying flat on your back and trying to pick yourself up off of the ground by grabbing your belt and pulling up. So God, according to the rich mercy by which he loved us (Ephesians 2:4), made the way for us by sending His only begotten Son so that those believing in Him would not perish but have eternal life (yes, John 3:16). So how will will they not perish? By believing in Him.


Now, you believe in a lot of things. You believe in Santa Clause, you believe most gossip, maybe you believe in climate change. But why do you believe those things? Because someone told you or you read about it. So how is one to believe in Christ as his Lord? Let’s read what the Bible has to say on this:


“For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ 14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”

Romans 10:13-25


Working backwards from this, someone has to be sent through some medium. Whether that be by boat across the Atlantic and into the mainlands of China, by airplane to a dirt runway in an Asian forest, by convenience of broadcasting/internet, or by walking up to someone, someone must be sent by God to those who He has called. But once those are sent they must preach that the one being sent to may hear the message being proclaimed. Don’t try to be cute and ask about a deaf person or language barriers. Talk to someone who has spent several years overseas in missionary work and ask them about the things that they have been a witness to concerning this. When God chooses to move, the very laws of nature which he created will bow before Him in submission. The last part of the backwards working of this verse is the most crucial. The gospel message has fallen on countless millions of ears through the course of its ministry. What separates the sheep from the goats is the profession of faith by the one hearing. When the gospel is preached, one hears, the Spirit (who has already been at work up to this point) opens the eyes of the heart while simultaneously replacing that rock with a nice warm piece of flesh, and the newly regenerated child of God cries out for mercy.


Old Testament Salvation


The Old Testament saints were saved in the same way that we today are saved. You simply follow these steps to inherit eternal life: Step 1: be called by God. Step 2: See step one. When we are called by God, the chains hit the prison floor and sight is restored to the blind. We receive the gift of faith and the gift of salvation simultaneously. The Old Testament patriarchs clearly looked forward to the cross. One of the first promises ever made was that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. The Jewish people clung to this promise for their entire history and even so today, for many do not yet recognize Christ as their messiah. We read in Romans that Abraham believed and it was counted to him as righteousness. David knew that his sin was grave and ultimately against the creator God. So, in the 51st Psalm, we see David acknowledge his sin (v.3&4), declare that God is steadfast in love and abundant in mercy (v.1) and cries out the obvious conclusion: that he cannot save himself, only God can (v.2;7-12).


Notice how David doesn’t immediately revert to, “I need to offer several sacrifices because I have acknowledged my sin, and only by me acting in sacrificial offerings will God cleanse me of my sin.” No, he even says later in verse sixteen, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it.” David, along with all of the true Israel, knew that there was nothing in man that could save himself. He knew that power was in God and in the coming Messiah. Lastly, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:13-14, “Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.” The thing that was written is quoted from Psalm 116:10. Paul is saying here that we have one spirit of mind rooted in faith that God would raise Christ from the dead and thus raise us.


That Renowned Island


Now let’s get down to the meat and potatoes. “What about the innocent man on an island who never heard the gospel, why is it fair that he should perish?” The only conundrum presented in this question is the sentiment driving it. We claim that this man on the island never had a fair shot to respond to the gospel. Many people would call a God who would allow this evil. But the sentiment breaks down in the fourth and fifth words. This is a presupposition. Scripture is clear about the depravity of man and inherent sin.


Romans 5:12,18

Ephesians 2:1-3

Colossians 2:13

Genesis 6:5

Romans 6:20

John 8:44

1 Corinthians 2:14

John 6:65

Romans 6:20

Romans 3:11-18


Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written…


My point is that there is no such thing as an innocent man. We cannot answer an illogical, unscriptural question. It’s like asking what the unsaved people will be doing in heaven. Our job is to take the gospel to the nations and disciple them and teach them all that Christ commanded us, not to sit back and pinpoint all of the innocents so that perhaps we may reach them before death itself. If it were true that the “innocent” man who doesn’t get a chance to respond to the gospel goes to heaven, then we should shut down every missionary outlet in the world. World missions needs to cease immediately. If these people can attain salvation by just minding their business so long as the gospel never penetrates their sphere, then we would be eternally murderous to attempt to reach them for we can all agree that not all will receive an effectual call, or not all will believe.

The Sovereignty of God


Years ago I was told a story about a missionary trip. On this trip, the men were high in the mountains of some foreign land trying to find a village that the locals had told them about. Through a lot of hiking, many afflictions, and God’s providence they made it to the village. If I recall correctly the men walked up with the translator and introduced themselves as having come in the name of Jesus or something along those lines. One of the villagers with much joy said, ”We have been waiting for you!” Apparently they had been visited in dreams and been told that a messenger of salvation would come to them.


Deuteronomy 4:29 (ESV): But from there you will seek the Lord your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul.


My opinion on the matter is that God’s sheep will be saved. This is scriptural and this is assuring. The tough part of world missions is struggling with God’s sovereignty as it relates to the human desire to control all things. If we wrestle with this thought, but submit that it is nonetheless true by scripture, how do we live with ourselves? How do we sleep at night? We sleep by trusting in the righteous sovereignty of God. Not one of God’s eternal decrees will fail and we know that God has decreed from eternity past those who will be His. By the Holy counsel of His eternal will He has decreed it and it will come to pass. If the man on the island was predestined to adoption as a son of God then the gospel will reach that man.


Romans 9:19–23 (ESV): You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory


No matter how many times we read scripture and choose to hop skip and jump over Romans 9 (and frankly many, many other passages of scripture), we still have this unavoidable truth. Many jerk back at this thought but it’s the Spirit of Truth speaking through Paul. Countless times you will hear the “That’s not fair!” card pulled when its even hinted at that those who perish without the gospel were part of God’s eternal decree. “A good God wouldn’t allow that to happen,” they say. I need to offer up one last thought experiment for those reading this that have that thought. Which scenario is worse?


  1. God, in His eternal goodness and divine decree, set aside, according to His good pleasure, those who would believe in Him. Those not believing were passed over and left to their own natural desires as enemies of God.

  2. God desires every human that ever lived to be saved. However, because He is not truly omnipotent (all-powerful) and not totally sovereign (in control), He was unable to find a way to get the gospel to those who perished. Mankind’s will simply prevailed against him.


I tremble to think that it is even remotely possible for the God of the Bible to find himself in the second scenario. If God were unable to do this, we have no assurance that any of His promises will ever come to pass. The God you would not want to serve is the God who is not sovereign enough to bring about that which he desires. He is not God if His own will can be thwarted by a worm such as man. He is not King if His own creation hinders the advancement of His kingdom. The question shouldn‘t be, “Why does anyone perish?” The question we should be asking is,“Why is anyone saved?”


Are you shocked

By the consequence of sin?

Be more shocked

By the mercy of him

-Jimmy Needham, The Story


Rest easy knowing that we serve a God who is truly sovereign over all things, especially the salvation of man.


The Lord bless you,

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