The judgement of the heathen
This apologetic question comes in a number of forms: What about those who have never heard the gospel? What about the heathen? Will God send the people in Communist China to hell when they've never heard about Jesus and, indeed, they have been trained to believe the exact opposite? How is God just if those who haven't heard are condemned? It isn't fair that some hear and others don't. Indeed, these are rather tricky questions to try and answer.
Analysis of the question
The question usually develops after the gospel is explained and when the listener realizes it is only those who hear and respond to the message who are saved. Naturally they then want to know, what happens to those who haven't heard?
It is sometimes a problem of logic. If God is a just God:
i] how can he condemn to eternal punishment those who never knew they were acting willfully against him, or
ii] who never had the opportunity to hear the gospel message and respond to it?
Many questions have emotional overtones, eg:
i] It seems unjust to punish a sincere person.
ii] It is easy to identify with those who have never had a chance.
iii] Many simply dislike the use of punishment, especially retributive.
iv] Today there is a general admiration and respect for other cultures and religions.
v] The seeming self-righteous attitude of Christians can cause antagonism.
Always try to defuse an emotional issue before tackling the real question, eg.
i] In no way would I suggest that eastern peoples and their cultures are somehow less than Western. In fact, Christianity had its origins in the East.
ii] No! all people are equal in the sight of God and of course that means equally responsible to serve him. And he has shown us how in his Son Jesus.
This question suits the stirrer, so watch out.
What the Bible has to say
There are no slick answers given in scripture to what is, nevertheless, a difficult philosophical question. Biblical principles are as follows:
i] All people are guilty before God, Romans 3:19-23. The whole argument of the first three chapters of Romans is bent on showing that Jew and Gentile alike are utter moral and spiritual failures. The reasoning of Paul reaches a climax in 3:10-18.
ii] All people are not equally guilty before God. The Jew with the law, the nominal Christian with the gospel, are called to account according to the greatness of their privilege and opportunity. Knowing the truth never saved anyone, it only increases their responsibility to accept the truth, Hebrews 2:3.
The history of Israel is a sad account of lost opportunities and neglected privileges, Luke 19:41-44.
iii] There are degrees of punishment in the judgement of God, Matthew 11:20-24, Luke 12:47-48. Degrees of punishment seem to be determined on the basis neglected opportunities. There are even references to degrees of reward, although we do need to be careful how we define the reward, 1 Corinthians 3:12-14, 11, John 8.
iv] God's judgement will be absolutely just. This is assured by:
a) The character of the judge, Genesis 18:25b, Deuteronomy 7:9, 2 Timothy 4:8.
b) The deserts of mankind, Romans 1:28-32, 2:17-24. The repentant prodigal and tax collectors were good judges of their own character. So was the apostle Paul himself, Romans 7:18, 1 Corinthians 15:9, 1 Timothy 1:15. All 'second chance' doctrines are based on a too-light view of sin, or inadequate views of the holiness of God.
c) The promises of God's word.
He plays no favourites - Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11.
He allows for ignorance - Acts 3:17, 17:23-30.
His judgment is never hasty - Romans 3:25.
Any doctrine which holds out the hope of salvation for the unreached multitudes apart from the gospel, ignores the following Biblical teaching:
i] Pagan worship is utterly repugnant to God, Exodus 20:3-5, Joshua 24:14, Deuteronomy 11:6, Isaiah 48:2, Ephesians 4:17,18.
ii] The heathen are neither completely ignorant, nor innocent. Romans 1:18-23, 2:12-16. Note in 1:18 "suppress". The A.V. has "hold" the R.V. (more correctly) "hold down". They have sinned against the light they have. Romans 1:24-32. Ephesians 4:17,18 - note "because".
iii] The early converts' former state is describes as "without hope" (Ephesians 2:12) and being "alienated from God", Ephesians 4:17,18. Compare 1 Peter 1:9,10.
iv] Jesus Christ is the only way to God, John 3:18, 36; 14:6, Acts 4:12, 1 John 5:11,12, 1 Timothy 2:5,6.
Louis Berkhof is able to sum up the situation thus: "The gentiles will be judged by the law of nature inscribed in their hearts, the Israelites of the old dispensation by the Old Testament revelation and by that only, and those who have enjoyed, besides the light of nature and the revelation of the Old Testament, the light of the gospel, will be judged according to the greater light which they have received. God will give to every man his due." Bishop Moule adds, ".... but the whole problem of the sentence on those who have never received revelation is of the deepest mystery. He who entirely submits to the teaching of Scripture will leave it in solemn silence to the Judge, remembering on the one side his absolute mercy and justice, and on the other side the insistence of the Holy Scripture upon the urgent necessity that the gospel should be carried to man everywhere in this world with a view to their salvation. And meanwhile his own heart's experience tells him of man's profound need to know that gospel in its fullness, in order to do the will of God. Whatever speculation may do, the Holy Scriptures do no encourage vague hopes of human salvation apart from the gospel."
The starting point for me is this, whatever you say, God is not going to act unjustly - He simply can't because then he ceases to be God. Now it would be totally unjust for God to condemn some poor fellow simply because they didn't know him. It would be just as wrong to condemn a bloke who has spent their whole life frantically searching after God, but through an accident of geography never got the chance to hear the good news of Jesus. Obviously God just can't act that way.
Now the facts are these:
i] God has revealed himself to all
If we think we're the only people in the world that can know anything about God - because we have the Bible - then we're in for a shock. You see, the Bible itself says that all people can know God because he has revealed himself in his creation (Rom.1). Anyone who wants to know about God - his deity and power - need only look around about themselves. Whether it is a simple tribal native or a complex urbanized Westerner, they can know about God.
ii] All people have rejected God
The trouble is, even though God is knowable, every human being has failed to respond to that knowledge. No matter how simple the person is or how complex, they have turned their back on God. Take for instance a simple native who makes God out to be a crocodile. Not only have they rejected the clear revelation of God available to them, but they have warped it to suit their own ends. Yet many in the developed world are no better, for they claim God doesn't even exist, then make their car or their home their God.
iii] God will judge all people on the basis of what they know
In the end, God will ultimately judge each person on the basis of what they know. The simple native; on the basis of the revelation available to them from nature; us, on a far greater revelation. If that is so, I wonder who stands under the greater condemnation. Not nice, is it?
iv] All who seek find
Probably the most profound truth in all this is that even through everyone is guilty of rejecting God, He never rejected us. So He promised that anyone who searches after Him will find him - find Him through Jesus. That's what Jesus meant by saying "I am the way". It doesn't matter who the person is or where they are, if they are searching for God they will find Jesus. They could be living in some remote tribe never touched by civilization. If they seek the Lord, the Lord will organise some poor old missionary to travel a thousand miles to give them the word; the missionary will then probably pat himself on the back for being such a tremendous evangelist. If a person is genuinely searching after God they will find him - and that goes for you.
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