Eternal destiny, part 4: What about those who’ve never heard?

The second element of the question put to me was as regards the eternal state of those who have never heard the gospel, and consequently have never had the opportunity to accept or reject Christ. This is a problematic concept when we try and break it down logically, and I readily admit this. However the uncomfortable reality is that Scripture is nearly silent on the subject. I only found a couple of references that alluded to the “ignorant unbeliever” at all. In Luke 12:42 and following, Jesus says that the one who knowingly violated what he knew to be right will be punished more severely than the one who erred ignorantly. Peter in his second epistle is even stronger (2:20-21), when he says of those who once believed but have returned, not only to the world, but to actively trying to deceive other believers, that “It would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than to have known it and then to turn their backs. . .”

There are several passages that may be inferred to include those who have never heard, including Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, as well as John 5, Hebrews 9, and Revelation 20. There are vastly more passages which describe only the fate of those who have turned their back on the Lord—a far more active thing. But even from the few passages that do seem to include all people everywhere, we can infer that all flesh will be subject to judgment. Moving from this inference to the conclusion that those who have never heard are subject to the same punishment as those who actively oppose Jesus, requires a leap that Scripture does not make.

Scripture is quite clear that only those who have believed in the Lord receive eternal life (though I must qualify that the conventional evangelical definition of the term “believe” as “intellectual assent to orthodox propositions” is wide of the mark). Universalism is not a Biblical concept. But to say with certainty that the ignorant unbeliever will languish in eternal, conscious torment along with the one who has rejected and opposed Christ, is not a conclusion Scripture supports.

Finally, although this last point is a logical one and not a scriptural one (and therefore I offer it as a point to consider, not a doctrine), I have been struck by a number of cases over the years where the Spirit of God has clearly prepared a people group to receive the gospel, in some cases generations before any missionary arrives. Repeatedly I have read of missionaries arriving in a place to find people to whom elements of the truth of God have been revealed without any clear knowledge of the gospel, but who as soon as they heard the word of Christ have realized that this is what they were waiting for. It seems to me that we should be careful not to seal up our doctrinal boundaries so tightly as to exclude from our belief system those in whom the Spirit of God has been working without the benefit of a flesh-and-blood missionary.

None of this excuses us from our mandate to spread the gospel. As I said at the outset, our king has given us marching orders, and they are to be followed, not because of what will happen if we don’t, but because he’s our king. But as to the fate of those we don’t reach before they die, perhaps the most relevant scripture is Jesus’ counsel to Peter when he asked about John’s fate: “. . .what is that to you? You follow me.”

2 thoughts on “Eternal destiny, part 4: What about those who’ve never heard?”

  1. Stephen

    As I commented on another of your posts, I really enjoy reading your posts, because you're so willing to do your own thinking, and challenge traditional ways of thought. I can also appreciate you wanting to study this particular subject on your own, without reading any commentaries before seeking to see what the Bible writers themselves had to say. Now that it has been over a year since you wrote the articles,though, maybe you won't mind reading a few of my thoughts on the matter.

    In my blog (www.mystic444.wordpress.com) I have quite a few articles on such subjects as resurrection, reincarnation, hell/eternal punishment, and universal salvation. I certainly can't go into detail in a comment here, though.

    Concerning life after death and resurrection, Jesus made an interesting point as given in Matthew 12:31 and 32 – in answer to the Sadducees' question: "And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is God NOT OF THE DEAD, BUT OF THE LIVING". A point overlooked by most people, it would seem, is that Jesus said that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were not dead, but living, and that was the RESURRECTION. The resurrection was not a future event for them, but the fact that they are presently alive (even though their bodies aren't) is what Jesus said the resurrection is all about. John 5:19-29 also bears this out. I won't quote it all here, but Jesus made the point there that he does nothing on his own authority, but only what his Father tells him and gives him authority to do. The Father raises the dead and gives them life (verse 21), and so the son does also. All judgment is committed to the son (verse 22). The son even then had authority to give live to spiritually dead people who were physically alive (verses 25-27); and soon he would have the authority to raise all who died physically (both the good and evil – verses 28 and 29). The point I'm making here, is that the son is only doing what the Father has previously been doing all along until that point – raising the dead (both spiritually and physically). When Jesus came in his kingdom (which he said was to be during the lifetime of some of his disciples – Matt. 16:27 and 28) 'took over' from the Father, and began to repay everyone for what they have done. He raises them from the dead, and passes judgment. Those who have done good partake of the fullness of resurrection, while those who have done evil must be disciplined and corrected before they can enter that fullness.

    I see a 'golden thread' of universalism running throughout the 'scriptures', beginning at least with the promise to Abraham that in his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:3) But just to give a couple of New Testament references which seem to me to be explicit, Romans 5:18 says: "Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness LEADS TO JUSTIFICATION AND LIFE FOR ALL". 1 Cor. 15:22 says: "For as all die in Adam, so ALL will be made alive in Christ".

    Just some food for thought. I have to admit that since I 'apostatized' from 'orthodox, evangelical' Christianity over 20 years ago, my thoughts have been as much influenced by 'near death experiences' and testimonies of past life recollections, as by anything in the Bible; so feel free to think I'm a 'nutcase' (grin). But if you want to get a more complete idea of my Biblical defense of these things, check out my blog.

    Thanks for this excellent blog site.

  2. Dan Martin

    Hi Stephen,

    Sorry I didn't get to your comment sooner, I was on vacation last week and had better things to do (like spend time with my family) than check out my blog. . . ;{)

    Your reference to Jesus' description that his father is "not God of the dead, but the living" is an interesting take on the idea of life after death (though it's Matt. 22, not 12). In context, Jesus is making a rabbinical argument against the Sadducees' contention that there is no resurrection of the dead. So whether he really meant that in that very moment in time, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were in some sense living, or whether they might be raised later, is really not what Jesus was addressing, but rather he was countering the notion that temporal, earthly death was the end of the story. I wouldn't go beyond what is written and hang a doctrinal point on this vis-a-vis the current state of the dead. You are quite right, however, that Jesus already had power/authority to raise the dead (and also to forgive sins) while still on earth pre-crucifixion, which has interesting ramifications on several conventional belief systems.

    As to your contention for universalism, I would argue (as I already did in this four-part series) that the Biblical evidence is not as clear as either you, or your fundamentalist opponents, might wish. There is some clear language in Jesus' own words (I think of the sheep/goats parable of Matt. 25) that suggests to me that not everyone is "saved." My argument in this series is that conventional use of damnation theology, and the threat of damnation as an "evangelistic" tool, are unscriptural.

    My biggest objection to your contention of universalism (besides that I would suggest it's unsupported by the broad sense of scripture and the context of even the passages you cite) would really be this: The contention of universalism STILL lends credence to the notion that "where you go when you die" is the point of Jesus' work. Jesus called–and still calls–people to follow him, and let him and his Father sort out the eternity stuff. That call is something we are still responsible to answer, whatever the reward/penalty structure looks like.

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