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What Happens to Those Who’ve Never Heard of Christ?, Part II
In last month’s Proclamation we ran an excerpt from a widely publicized debate between a Christian and an atheist conducted at the Willow Creek Community Church in Willow Creek, Illinois, in June of 1993. Many arguments on both sides were advanced that night, but the particular question at issue in our printed excerpt was: “What happens to those who have never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ?”
Of course the traditional Christian position on this subject is that no one can or ever will be saved apart from Christ. Jesus Himself once made the following categorical statement: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.” (John 14:6) Yet in the case of a native tribesman living deep in some remote African jungle who has never even heard of Jesus Christ, what will God do if He is, in fact, a just God?
In his response to this question at Willow Creek that night, the Christian debater, William Lane Craig, a visiting scholar at the University of Leuven in Belgium, made the statement that “God will give eternal life to anyone who responds to His general revelation in nature and in conscience…” He later added that this “doesn’t mean that a person can be saved apart from Christ. It would be that the blood of Christ or the sacrifice of Christ was applied to that person even though he did not have any conscious knowledge of Christ.”
A number of observant Proclamation readers have called or spoken to me since last month, challenging the Biblical accuracy of Craig’s response. And, as it turns out, Craig’s observation from the first two chapters of Romans that salvation is offered to anyone who responds to the revelation of God in nature or conscience was quite obviously inferred by the debater. It certainly is not objectively stated anywhere in Scripture.
Mr. Craig did state that “unfortunately, the sad testimony of the Scripture is also that people do not respond to (general revelation) — that in their sinful proclivities they suppress this truth, they turn away from God…to idols…” But saying that people are not saved through general revelation simply because they do not respond to it is not at all the same as saying that they can not be saved through general revelation because general revelation, in and of itself, is insufficient. While it’s true that nature may lead one toward Christ, it can never lead anyone to Heaven through Christ. Someone once said, “There are many roads to Christ, but only one road to God — and that is Christ.”
So what’s the bottom line here? What really does happen to those who have never heard of Christ?
It depends first of all (but not finally) on how they have responded to God’s general revelation. In the case of those who have neglected or rejected such general revelation (no doubt the case with the vast majority of those who have never heard of Christ), they’re lost, condemned for all eternity to a real hell. But note — they are not condemned for what they haven’t heard. They are judged for what they have heard and rejected. In this sense, as R.C. Sproul rightly states, “there are no innocent people in the world.”
In the case, however, of the one who has never heard of Christ, yet sincerely worships God as he knows Him, and lives consistently with moral law as he understands it, we do have some grounds (Acts 10 et al) to believe that God may be pleased to grant a further special revelation involving the Gospel of Christ Himself, which one would then, in turn, either accept or reject. Exactly how or when would God arrange for such a further revelation? Might 1 Peter 3:18-20 or 1 Peter 4:6 somehow correlate with Romans 2:16 here? The Scripture allows many such details to remain hidden, while being unequivocal about the fact that God will judge with perfect justice (Psalm 98:9).
Does all this detail somehow seem trivial to you? Be certain that it is not! In fact, this subject in all of its related subtlety is absolutely critical. Among other things, for instance, correct Biblical exegesis on this subject provides an unequaled incentive for the continued Christian mission of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth. As Romans 10:14 says, “How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?”
Are you an individual who has always somewhat resisted the idea of an all-powerful God to whom all men and women will one day need to give an account?
While you certainly have the right to question the existence of God, you should also realize that your personal views won’t change the facts. According to Romans 1:20, the evidence for God in the natural world alone is quite sufficient to leave all those who try to explain Him away, or ignore Him, as being totally without excuse.
One of my friends with the Maine State Police isn’t much moved by excuses anymore — he’s heard far too many already.
Listen… it’s time for you to trade all your excuses for a bended knee and a humble heart, acknowledging Jesus as your Lord. Do it right now in prayer.