What about those who have never heard the gospel?
Copyright 2012 by Bob Rogers
Dr. Greg Boyd is a Christian Bible professor, but his father, Edward Boyd, was not a believer. As Greg shared his faith with his father, his father agreed to write down his doubts and questions about Christianity, and Greg would seek to answer. Their correspondence is published in a book, Letters from a Skeptic. One of Ed Boyd’s biggest objections was the question of what happens to those who never hear the gospel.
Boyd writes, “Doesn’t this mean that these unfortunate people—who constitute the majority of the world—are in fact going to be sent to hell by your all-loving God? But how can this be since they had nothing to do with when they were born, where they were born, what culture they were born into… How can one go to hell by the accident of where he happened to be born? (Gregory A. Boyd and Edward K. Boyd, Letters from a Skeptic, p. 155).
The dilemma that Edward Boyd asked is a dilemma for many Christians, as well as skeptics.
On the one hand, John 14:6 says that Jesus is the only way to heaven, yet we know that millions of people have never heard about Jesus. It seems unfair for God to send them to hell, especially since 2 Peter 3:9 says that God does not desire that anybody perish, but desires all to come to repentance and faith in Christ.
Some Christians try to solve this dilemma by thinking that God just gives people a pass if they haven’t heard. David Platt explodes this idea. He says, “If people have a pass just because they have not heard the gospel, what is the worst thing you can do? If you tell them about Jesus, you just increased their chance of going to hell!” They were okay before you told them about Jesus, but now that they’ve heard about Jesus, if they don’t believe, they go to hell. With that line of thinking, you messed them up by sending a missionary! But we know that can’t be true, because we all know that the Bible commands us to share the gospel with every nation and language. Romans 10:14-15 says that they can’t believe unless they hear, and they can’t hear without a preacher, and they can’t preach unless they are sent. So what is the answer? We find some answers in Acts 17.
Acts 17 tells how Paul preached to a group of people who had never heard the gospel before, and Paul says something that can help us understand this dilemma.u He notices that they had worshiped what they called an “Unknown God,” and then he tells them what they call “unknown” he wants to make known to them: Jesus Christ. Then he says this:
“From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” (Acts 17:26-27, 1984 NIV)
Notice three things in this passage that helps us understand the fate of those who have never heard the gospel:
I. God knows where we live (v. 26)
Edward Boyd thought it was unfair that God sends somebody to hell because they happened to be born in a land or culture where they don’t hear the gospel, but Paul says almost the direct opposite. He says in verse 26 that God determined the exact time and place where every human should live. Verse 27 even says that God did this so that men would seek Him!
Could it be that God put people who are less likely to seek Him in strongly evangelical areas, and He put people who are more likely to seek Him in non-Christian areas? I used to pastor in one of the most evangelized areas of the world, in Mississippi, where there is a Baptist or Methodist or Pentecostal church at nearly every rural crossroads and every small town. But I can also tell you that many of the unchurched people that I met were some of the most hardened to the gospel and hardest to witness to that I had ever met. Yet when I went to an unevangelized area of Mexico and shared the gospel, hundreds of people responded.
The International Mission Board reports: God descended on a Muslim village in Algeria one night. On that evening in 1983, villagers later testified, the Holy Spirit moved from house to house, revealing himself through dreams, visions and angelic visitations. Some 450 Muslims in the village eventually became believers in Christ as their Savior. Christians had nothing to do with the incident — or so they thought. But when mission workers began asking how such a miracle could have occurred, they discovered this: More than six centuries ago, Spanish missionary Raymond Lull was stoned to death by Muslims for preaching where the village now stands. Lull wrote before his death that Islamic strongholds would be conquered not by force, but only “by love and prayers, and the pouring out of tears and blood.” (“Analysis: To Muslins with ‘love, prayer, tears and blood,’ IMB Connecting, http://www.imb.org. Adapted from The Commission, January 8, 1997).
So don’t think it is an unfair accident that some people live in areas where the gospel is rarely preached. God didn’t make some mistake. He knows exactly where He put every person, and God is revealing Himself. Romans 1:20 says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”
II. God knows our hearts (v. 27a)
Paul goes on to say in verse 27, “God did this so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him…”
God knows our hearts. God knows who is going to seek Him.
In Romans 4, Paul discusses this with the illustration of Abraham:
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about–but not before God. 3 What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:1-3, 1984 NIV)
”Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why ‘it was credited to him as righteousness.’ The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness–for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” (Romans 4:20-24, 1984 NIV)
Abraham believed what God revealed to him. Jesus had not yet come, but Abraham had faith in everything He saw, and God accepted that faith as righteousness. Apparently God even revealed Jesus to Abraham, because in John 8:56 Jesus says, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” Notice the words “he saw it.” Jesus was saying that somehow, God allowed Abraham to see and understand about Jesus.
Cornelius was another example. Acts 10 says Cornelius was a God-fearing Roman centurion. He had not heard the gospel, but he had heard about the God of Israel, and he sought the Lord, even giving generously to the synagogue and praying regularly. Acts 10:4 says an angel appeared to Cornelius and said, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.” Then God sent Peter to Cornelius to share Jesus with him, and when Cornelius heard about Jesus, he believed.
God knows our hearts. If people live in lands where the gospel is not preached, but they seek God, then God will respond to them. If they come to the light they are given, God will give them more light!
III. God is available to us (v. 27b)
Finally, notice what Paul says in the end of verse 27: “He is not far from each one of us.”
God is available. He is not far away. He can be found.
Romans 1:20 says that God has revealed Himself through creation, so that all people are “without excuse.” Everybody has been given the revelation of God’s existence through creation. When we pay attention to the light that God gives us, then God gives more light. Deuteronomy 4:29, (HCSB) says to ”search for the Lord… you will find Him when you seek Him with all your heart…”
The International Mission Board reports that around the Muslim world, Christian workers report an increasing openness and turning to Christ — often preceded by dreams or visions of him among potential converts. Several examples of such phenomena were detailed last year by National and International Religion Report:
– Thousands of North African Muslims wrote to a Christian radio service asking for information. Many reported a similar dream: Jesus appears and tells them, “I am the way.”
– A young Muslim angrily took a Bible tract from a Christian worker, tore it up and threatened the worker’s life. The next day the same young man appeared at the worker’s door, not with a weapon but with a plea: “I must have another booklet.” The previous night, he recounted, he had felt two hands shake him awake and heard a voice say, “You have torn up the truth.” He read the tract and became a believer in Christ.
– In Nigeria, Muslims savagely beat a Christian convert from their tribe. As he lay dying, they heard him asking God to forgive them. That night two Muslim mullahs who participated in the attack saw visions of Christ. Both repented and took 80 followers to a Christian church to hear the gospel. (“Analysis: To Muslins with ‘love, prayer, tears and blood,’ IMB Connecting, http://www.imb.org. Adapted from The Commission, January 8, 1997).
Each of these stories illustrate the truth, that God is available, no matter where a person lives, and even people who live in areas where the gospel has rarely been heard, are hearing and coming to Christ.
Recently (July 2012) a group of nine people from our church visited in the home of a Christian who grew up in the Middle East. She lived in a city and nation where there are very few Christians, and she had never met a Christian or read the Bible or heard the gospel. But one night, she had a dream. In this dream, she stepped outside of her door and was in a desert, and there was a cross lying on a rock. She was told to put the cross in the rock, and when she did, a city appeared with people who looked like her but spoke a language foreign to her.
Three years later, she and her husband moved to Pakistan. There she met people who looked like her but spoke a foreign language, just as in her dream. Then her husband brought home a Bible in Arabic and said, “Why don’t you read this?” She said, “Aha! I have always heard that the prophet Jesus said to follow the prophet Muhammad who is coming after him.” So she read the Bible to find this, but was surprised to read instead that Jesus said false prophets would come after Him (Matthew 7:15; 24:24). When she read this, she exclaimed, “Muhammad his a false prophet!” I must follow Jesus. She has been a faithful Christian to this day, sharing her faith with Muslim women.
Remember Dr. Greg Boyd, and his correspondence with his father, Edward Boyd? After 3 years of writing back and forth 30 letters, and numerous phone calls, Edward Boyd finally came to faith in Christ. So can you, and so can the lost who live in faraway lands!
Really, the question should not be, “Why did God put them in places where the gospel is rarely preached?” The question should be, “Why are we not taking the gospel to them?”