Your November question prompts me to ask another question: How can we justify the belief that the heathen are lost and going to Hell when they have never heard the gospel? You say everyone will be without excuse. Is that really fair?
I believe the Scriptures make it plain that the heathen are truly without excuse. Your question is extremely important because our entire missionary purposes are linked to it. Think through the Great Commission carefully:
Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world (Matt. 28:19, 20).
Jesus further stated before His ascension:
Ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth (Acts 1:8).
The Great Commission shows in itself that the heathen are lost. If they were not, we would not need to go to the “uttermost part of the earth” as Spirit-indwelled believers with the good news of the gospel. In fact, if the heathen have an excuse, it would be better for them if we didn’t go—and for them not to hear—since upon hearing the truth they might reject it and go to Hell!
Second, the idea that the heathen are not lost goes against the doctrine of God’s grace. Some people have the mistaken idea that God owes everyone at least one chance of salvation. The fact is, He owes no one salvation! We can be saved and have eternal life only by God’s grace. What people actually say when they question God’s justice concerning the lost who have never heard the gospel is that it is God’s fault. This is not so. To blame God shifts the responsibility given us believers to go, win, baptize, and teach—in every corner of the world.
Third, we must understand how God will judge the heathen when they stand before Christ and He sends them from His presence forever. They will not be so judged because they had never heard about Christ but because they had rebelled against the minute knowledge or awareness they did have.
Acts 17:16‒34 records Paul’s encounter with the heathen at Mars Hill. In this exchange, Paul made it clear that God has given mankind enough knowledge to enable individuals to want to seek to know Him. Pioneer missionaries have testified that the heathen have far more light than they live up to—they have a sense of right and wrong in their very nature. Missionaries have heard converted heathen say that before they trusted Christ, they knew that things such as killing, stealing, lying, immoral acts, and so forth are wrong.
Romans 2:14 and 15 state,
For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.
This passage shows us that so-called virtuous deeds, the operation of the conscience, and the judging of one another either by accusing or excusing demonstrate the presence of moral law among the heathen. Even though the heathen may not have the written message, they possess a basic idea of right and wrong. God can and will judge the heathen according to their conscience and their deeds or works (Rom. 2:2, 6; Rev. 20:12).
Fourth, we have to believe the heathen are lost, for God will not accept their pagan approaches to Him, no matter how devoted or sincere. John 14:6 applies just as much to the person who has never heard as it does to anyone else: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”
Throughout the Scriptures we see how God abhors the ways of heathenism and idolatry. The modem anthropologist who says we Christians should leave the remote tribes and peoples of earth alone is absolutely wrong as far as our divine mandate as believers is concerned. We must tenaciously hold the position that the heathen are lost and in need of our message. Their ways will not save them. Actually believers should view heathenism as the heathen’s rejecting God as it is manifested by their practices and rituals, rather than viewing it as their somehow trying and groping to find God. Romans 1 paints the picture of fallen man sinking deeper and deeper into sin. It also shows how heathen darkness came into being. It resulted from deliberate rejection of God.
Fifth, Romans 3:9‒11 shows us that all—heathen or not—are guilty:
What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; as it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.
Surely the person who has never heard is included in this common lot of mankind.
Sixth, no geographical category of unsaved people, as opposed to others in a civilized category, exists. Someone has said that here in civilized America we have the willingly heathen, and in remote lands we have heathen yet to have an opportunity to hear. But we have only two categories of people—the saved and the lost. Regardless of geographical location, if a person wants to know God even though he doesn’t have even a concept of God, God will reveal Himself to him.
The principle of James 4:8 applies here: “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you.” This is as applicable to the heathen as to anyone else. If the heathen person seeks God, because of the God-given desire to know, God will see to it that he finds the truth. Again we draw upon the experiences of missionaries to new tribes. They tell of countless people who respond quickly when they first hear the gospel. These new converts testify that they had been seeking the truth but didn’t know what it was or Who God is But God saw them and knew their desire (He was actually drawing them to Himself), and He sent missionaries to their villages so they could hear and respond.
The heathen, then, are lost and, unless saved, will be punished accordingly—but not unjustly. The question we all need to ask is this: What are we doing for them?
Do you have feedback or a Bible question to submit? Send to email@example.com or mail to Norman A. Olson in care of the Baptist Bulletin, 1300 N. Meacham Rd., Schaumburg, IL 60173-4806.