This is such an interesting question because it would be pretty rare for anyone living in Australia and particularly in Sydney to have not heard the name Jesus before. As a city, we are saturated with Bible-believing Christians and gospel-preaching churches. Yet, looking at global statistics, it shows a staggering 41.8% of the world population are unreached, approximately 3.2 billion people. And so, it is right to ask, ‘what happens to those who never get to hear the gospel?’
This is not merely a theological question. It’s actually a deeply personal question for all of us. As we think of our unbelieving families, friends, and colleagues, we might question if the God of the Bible really can be a good and loving God if those who never repent and embrace the gospel end up in hell? How can we reconcile this with the love and grace of God?
With these questions in mind, many have undertaken the challenge to understand what the Bible teaches and arrived at three different positions:
This position teaches that everyone will ultimately be saved and restored to a right relationship with God regardless of their beliefs.
This position teaches that salvation comes through the life and work of Jesus Christ, however the means to be saved isn’t exclusively by faith in Christ. This simply means salvation is possible apart from faith in Christ.
Lastly, this position teaches that salvation comes through the life and work of Jesus Christ and it’s only attainable by faith in Christ alone.
What does the Bible say?
- Everyone is without excuse against God’s wrath
‘The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 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 people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.’ (Romans 1:18-21)
Here in Romans, Paul writes that everyone is without excuse against God’s wrath because God has revealed himself through his creation (theologians call this general revelation). So, when we go outside to look at the mountains and the seas, God is knowable to us through what we see and experience. But Paul also writes that because of our wickedness, we are people who suppress the truth. So, instead of recognising God as who He really is – the Creator of us and everything around us – we actually reject Him by not worshipping Him. This leaves all of us without any grounds to plead innocence, even those who have never heard of the gospel.
- Everyone is unrighteous
‘As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.”’ (Romans 3:10-11)
‘…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ (Romans 3:23)
Further on in Romans 3, Paul continues his argument about the state of all humans. In verses 10 to 11, he quotes from Psalm 14:1-3 and teaches that we are all unrighteous, we all do not have right standing with God, for we do not seek Him for who He is. Paul clearly continues this line of thought in verse 23, where he emphasises our universal unrighteousness due to our sins – we all “fall short of the glory of God”. It’s abundantly clear that no one escapes this universal condition of being unrighteous whether it’s us in Sydney or whether it’s someone in an unreached people group. Because of our sin, we cannot be right with God.
- Everyone is spiritually dead
‘Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?’ (Romans 6:16)
‘What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!’ (Romans 6:21)
‘For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 6:23)
‘As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins.’ (Ephesians 2:1)
Paul writes in both Romans and Ephesians to Christians about their former way of life before they knew Christ. He describes this old life in sin as resulting in death. Of course, Paul isn’t talking about just their physical death, but he’s also talking about their spiritual death caused by their sinful way. Now, this logically means that anyone who’s outside of Christ is, to this day, still spiritually dead. Both those who have never heard the gospel and those who have heard it but rejected it are spiritually dead. Spiritual death is a reality for all of us as sinners.
- Jesus is the only way to God
‘Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14:6)
Despite having no excuse for God’s wrath, despite not being right with God due to sin and being spiritually dead in sin, God came to save sinners through his Son Jesus. Through his ministry and teaching, Jesus himself affirms this theological truth that salvation is found in him alone. He is “the” way, not a way of salvation. So to be made right with God, it must be through putting our trust entirely in the saving work of Jesus Christ. This stands true even for the unreached people in our world today who have no access to the Gospel.
Through the above four statements, it is clear that both universalism and inclusivism are incompatible with the biblical teaching of salvation. While they are genuine attempts to reconcile the question of God’s love and justice towards sinners, they undermine the whole of Scripture’s teaching that salvation is only attainable through faith in Christ alone.
How should we respond?
- Delight in God’s desire to save
‘…who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.’ (1 Timothy 2:4)
‘The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’ (2 Peter 3:9)
It’s easy for us to take away from the earlier four points and question if God is really loving, gracious and kind as we come to realise there’s potentially 3.2 billion people whom God will condemn for their sin without a chance to hear the Gospel. But a very close reading of the Bible shows us that God isn’t just a holy God who only wants to judge sinners. Scripture has shown us that God desires to save people. The very fact that we come to ACG and study God’s word for our growth in Christ is a testament to God’s mercy to save sinners like us. Without a doubt, God continues to desire to save more sinners as he is faithful in his words to us. So let’s not despair without hope, for God is committed to seeing people saved because he wants that to happen. Instead, let’s delight in God’s desire to save.
- Devote in prayer
‘Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”’ (Matthew 9:37)
Knowing that 3.2 billion are unreached should drive us to go out with the Gospel and seek for God’s kingdom to grow and bear fruit. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray for the mission field – to ask Jesus in prayer for workers, pastors, missionaries and evangelists to share the Gospel. To help us pray practically for those who have never heard the gospel, may I suggest using Joshua Project with their prayer tool on the unreached.
- Declare the Gospel
‘…for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?’ (Romans 10:13-14)
Not only can we participate in God’s mission by praying for the work of evangelism across the globe, but we can also participate by joining in the declaration of the Gospel to our many unbelieving families and friends. How can anyone believe if they haven’t heard the gospel? May I encourage you to be bold and declare the good news that Jesus saves!