By Roy B. Zuck

[Dallas Seminary, Kindred Spirit, Winter 1994, Vol 18 No. 4]

"How can a loving God let people go to hell if they have never heard of Christ and therefore cannot consciously turn to Him? Isn't it unfair to bar people from heaven if they are living up to the light they have?

These questions are extremely important because the answers affect the very heart of missions and evangelism. The missionary enterprise operates on the biblical principle that individuals without Christ are lost, and there is 'no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved' (Acts 4:12, NIV). If a possibility exists of people getting to heaven by some means other than personal trust in Jesus Christ, then the very motive behind missions is dissipated.

Several principles regarding this doctrine appear in the Book of Romans.

1. People are lost not because they haven't heard of Christ or haven't received Him but because they are sinners. That is the point of the first several chapters of Romans - to prove all people are sinners. 'Jews and Gentiles are all under sin' (Rom 3:9), and 'all the world...accountable to God' (3:19). 'Death spread to all men, because all sinned' (5:12b, italics added).

Therefore any person who goes to hell does so because he is a sinner. Whether he has heard of Jesus has absolutely nothing to do with his lost condition! Granted, if God condemned a person to hell simply because he hadn't heard of Christ, that would be the height of injustice. But that is not the basis of eternal judgment.

Also if a person is lost only after he has rejected Christ, then it follows that those who have never heard of Him and therefore have never rejected Him would not be lost! In fact they would be better off if missionaries never came and told them of Christ.

2. No one lives up to the light he has, and even if he did that wouldn't save him. Salvation is always by faith (trust) in the true God. In the Old Testament a person's faith was to be in Yahweh; and since Christ's first advent, a person's faith is to be in Christ Who is Yahweh.

Faith in Yahweh-Christ is the only way any person can ever be saved in any period of history.

'Abram believed [trusted in] the LORD, and He credited it to him as righteousness' (Gen 15:6, NIV). 

David wrote, 'In God I have put my trust' (Ps 56:4).

As Vernon Mortenson, former general director of The Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM), wrote in his tract 'Lostness': 'Experience in TEAM is that no one has ever reported finding anyone in any tribe or nation who has given evidence of being God's child apart from receiving the Gospel. Yes, some are conscious of a spiritual hunger, and some have been convinced of the error of their heathen religion, even as Socrates rejected the validity of the Greek deities, but such knowledge has fallen far short of that which is the minimum requirement for salvation.'

But can't people who have not heard of Christ be saved by living up to the light of natural revelation? No. Natural revelation gives people knowledge of God's presence, eternal power, diety, and goodness. People know these things by creation (Rom 1:19, 21; Acts 14:17) and by their conscience (Rom 2:14-15). But natural revelation is not enough to save; it is enough to show people that God exists and is powerful and that they must turn to Him.

3. People suppress the knowledge of God which they have through natural revelation. 'The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness' (Rom 1:18, NIV). They refuse to turn for salvation to God whose existence and power is evident from natural revelation.

Everyone refuses natural revelation and chooses sin. 'There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God... there is none who does good, there is not even one' (3:10-12). Therefore the unsaved are 'without excuse' before God (1:20b). They are inexcusably guilty for they have turned from the knowledge God has given of Himself in natural revelation. For this reason, then, God is not unfair in allowing sinners to go to hell. In fact all deserve hell. The justice and judgment of God are fully equitable when seen against the light of man's rejection of God (1:21-22), and his sin and pleasure in it (1:24-32).

Some may ask, 'Isn't the worship of pagans an evidence of their seeking after God?' An affirmative answer to this question would clearly contradict Romans 3:11 'No one .... seeks God' (NIV). Actually worship in the world's religions is evidence that people are afraid of God. Their worship, rituals, and man made religions represent an effort to appease Him and to offset His anger.

Others object by saying, 'The heathen are ignorant and don't know any difference, therefore God is unfair to hold them responsible.'

However, the unsaved are willingly ignorant of God. They suppress the knowledge of God (Rom 1:18) and abandon Him from their knowledge (1:28).

'But wasn't Cornelius a heathen who was saved without believing Christ?' Cornelius was a Jewish proselyte. Like some Gentiles in the Old Testament, he learned about the true God from the Jews and feared Him (Acts 10:2). However, Acts 11:14 records that Peter 'will bring you [Cornelius] a message through which you and all your household will be saved' (NIV). The case of Cornelius, however, is not parallel to the condition of the heathen today, for they are not Jewish proselytes.

How marvelous that we can share with others the plan of salvation through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ! This is the sinners' only hope - the amazing grace of our Lord. Far from stagnating our motive for missions, the lost condition of mankind apart from Christ should compel us to share the plan of salvation with utmost urgency. 'Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade men' and 'Christ's love compels us' (2 Cor 5:11, 14, NIV)."